How well do you remember 2005? Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” and “My Humps” by The Black Eyed Peas were being played on radios everywhere. Gossip magazines meticulously reported on Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie. The now widely used video-sharing platform YouTube was founded.
2005 was also the year that Angela Merkel became the first female chancellor of Germany, a position she still holds to this day. In Germany, the role of chancellor in is the equivalent to the role of prime minister in many other countries, and is not directly elected by the people. Instead, the electorate votes for their preferred party, and the candidate for chancellor within the party with the majority of votes is given the role for the next four years. While in France the government leader has to step down after a maximum of eight years, no other European country imposes this kind of rule. Therefore, under the German constitution there is no limit to the number of terms a chancellor can serve in office, and in theory, Angela Merkel could rule for the rest of her life – provided the public still vote for her party.
Therefore, some Germans have begun to argue for the introduction of a time limitation on the office of chancellor, and have questioned if it is democratic for one person to be in charge of a country for such a long time. Frank-Rudolf Korte (a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen), called for chancellors to be allowed to remain in office for a maximum of two legislative periods, so that “the parties and the voters would be spared exhausted candidates or undignified wars of succession”. In the late 1990s, Merkel herself even indicated that she did not want to remain in a position of political power for a prolonged period, saying that “I don’t want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics behind”. It has also been argued that this kind of limit would be positive within a democratic country because regular change of leadership would encourage younger generations of political figures to become more actively involved, encourages the production of fresh ideas, and makes leaders feel more pressure to deliver results so they can leave office with a positive legacy.
However, while some countries do have term limits on their leaders, those are not necessary if democracy continues to be upheld, and leaders facilitate rather than impede the inevitable transition from their rule to the leadership of another. Since 1949 Germany has had 8 chancellors, a number which while lower than in most other European countries, demonstrates that leaders certainly do not hold the role indefinitely. Nevertheless, Germany is somewhat known for their long-standing chancellors, both because of Merkel and because of Helmut Kohl, who was chancellor of West Germany between 1981 and 1990, and of reunified Germany between 1998 and 1998. The chancellor for over 16 years, Kohl held the position longer than any German leader since Bismarck, although famously rebuked this comparison with the statement that “unlike Bismarck, I’ve always been re-elected”. The chancellor cannot maintain power unchallenged, and if the public do not like the leader, they will not be re-elected at the end of their four-year term. The head of government can also be toppled by a no-confidence vote in parliament. Germany experiences long term chancellors only when the head of state continues to be endorsed by the electorate after each of their terms.
But now, Merkel - the “eternal chancellor” - is due to step down as chancellor when her current mandate runs out in 2021. She has also stated that she would not run for chancellor if snap elections were called before 2021. Although she had not been expected to attempt to run for a fifth term, upon the announcement of her departure from politics in October 2018, the media was nevertheless dominated by “end of an era” headlines. Probably the world’s most powerful woman, Merkel has maintained popular support within Germany because of her experience of delivering stability as well as prosperity to Germany. The euro fell briefly following this announcement, reflecting anxiety about the approaching uncertainty of the long-standing chancellor’s departure. For nearly 30 years, the photographer Herlinde Koelbl met regularly with Merkel to ask her questions and take her photograph, as part of a wider project called “Traces of Power”, which attempted to record the ways in which power changes people. Unlike other participants in the project, her appearance did not change significantly as she rose in fame, and instead she remained “remarkably – and boringly – true to herself”. The project was shown in exhibits across Germany, and shaped public perception of Merkel, who came across as authentic, and most importantly as unchanging. Through this stability, Merkel’s time as chancellor has seen Germany grow into an economic and diplomatic force at the centre of the European Union. However, her decision to allow more than a million migrants to settle in Germany during the peak of the 2015 encouraged the far-right, and damaged support for mainstream parties (including her own). In the light of this, Merkel has promised to step down while ensuring a smooth transition, something she has sought to do by standing down as party leader in December 2018. In her own words: “the time has come to open a new chapter”.
One of the biggest questions facing young people across Europe today, is what the future of European diplomacy should look like. It is therefore natural to question the current political environment, particularly in countries which seem to be an outlier – such as Germany with it’s long-standing chancellor. However, upon observation it is clear that term limits are not necessary in democratic countries, as once the leader loses support, or a better candidate comes around, then they will no longer be re-elected. While they have some limited benefits, term-limits nevertheless serve to undermine democratic practices, by potentially limiting a leader to only two terms even though that leader may continue to have popular support.