BERLIN – The strong performance by Angela Merkel's conservatives in Sunday's German election was not only a victory for her Christian Democratic Union but also vindication of her strategy of transforming a party long dominated by Roman Catholic men.
During her eight years as chancellor, Merkel re-invented her party — much as Bill Clinton did with America's Democrats. She broke with some of her party's core values on the family, national security and nuclear energy and — like Clinton — pushed it to the center of national politics with dazzling success.
Some party leaders had warned in recent years that Merkel was alienating her conservative base. Instead, her strategy produced the best performance by the CDU since 1994 — virtually guaranteeing her a third term as chancellor and silencing critics within the party.
"Merkel has been totally unjustifiably criticized over the years for abandoning conservative values," said Oscar Gabriel, a political scientist at the University of Stuttgart. "In fact she's positioned the party where the majority of voters are. Her strategy has made the CDU attractive to voters in other parties."
"The CDU's entire election campaign was focused on Merkel," Germany's biggest-selling newspaper, Bild, said on its website. "Now, more than ever, she is the undisputed leader of the CDU and the entire country."
A Lutheran pastor's daughter who grew up in Communist East Germany, Merkel surprised many of her colleagues when she joined the Catholic and male-dominated Christian Democrats shortly before reunification in 1990. Within months, however, the political newcomer had been named to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Cabinet as minister of family and women and later environment.
"Everyone thought this was because she was young, she was a woman, she was from the east and she wasn't involved with the regime there," said Jacqueline Boysen, one of Merkel's many biographers. "But things weren't that simple because she proved that it was a place she was suited for. She found that she was talented and enjoyed politics."
Underestimated by many inside and outside her party, Merkel steadily rose through the ranks to become chancellor for the first time in 2005. Her favorite phrase is: "step by step."
As she gained power Merkel shifted positions on numerous issues, most famously when she abruptly decided in 2011 to phase out nuclear power within a decade. Still, some Christian Democrats attacked the chancellor, warning that she was weakening the party by failing to defend its Christian conservative values.
And yet voters have rewarded her for trying to find the biggest possible consensus on important issues.
While many politicians face a crisis in their second term, Merkel has managed to emerge stronger than ever in voters' standing, with approval ratings above 70 percent.
And a survey by German public television station ARD found that 38 percent of voters backed the party only because of Merkel. In 2009 only 32 percent said the same. Four years earlier when Merkel first became chancellor it was 16 percent.
"Angela Merkel has great popularity ratings, better even than her party. She was able to turn this into an election gain for her party," said Deniz Anan, a lecturer in politics at Munich's Technical University.
During Merkel's only direct TV duel with her main challenger, Peer Steinbrueck of the Social Democrats, she told voters "You know me," reinforcing the motherly image she is often said to project.
"That was probably her cleverest move," said Anan. "It seems people want reliability, especially during the Euro crisis."
A commentary on the website of the German weekly Der Spiegel summed up Merkel's style as presidential and inoffensive.
"Nobody can say exactly what she stands for, but many voters feel they are in good hands with Chancellor Merkel," it said.