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Angela Merkel and the 10-Year Rule

If there is an iron law of European politics, it is for leaders to get out at the top as the ten-year rule completes its cycle.

October 30, 2015

Credit: Number10 -

Angela Merkel recently celebrated her tenth year as German Chancellor. For most of her time in office, she has seemed to tower over the German — and European — political scene.

But all of a sudden, in the aftermath of the European refugee crisis and the all too categorical positions she took on the issue, Merkel’s magic is waning fast.

At home and abroad, she has come under severe criticism. There is now open speculation that she may very well not last much longer in her post.

In a wider political context, wholly independent of the refugee crisis and its fallout, the writing had quite literally been on the wall.

For if there is one ironclad rule for even the most successful and impactful European politicians, it is this: Don’t overstay your welcome.

And if you do, that decision may very well come to haunt you — as it now does with Merkel.

There is no dominant European leader who has gone beyond ten years in office without it all turning sour and bad. This rule, of course, applies to Mrs. Merkel’s own mentor, Helmut Kohl.

Thatcher as a warning

Mrs. Merkel might do well to look at the last giant female leader in Europe, Margaret Thatcher. By the end of her first ten years in Downing Street, the “Iron Lady” had won three successive elections, destroyed militant syndicalist trade unions and presided over a liberalization and privatization of the sclerotic British economy.

As a result, she restored growth, which has made Britain the best performing economy in terms of GDP growth in recent years.

That was 1989. A year later, the Thatcher supremacy had collapsed into ruins as internal rows of Europe produced a backlash inside her own Conservative Party that led to her ousting.

This “rule of ten” applies elsewhere. A decade after General de Gaulle took power in France in 1958, the country was famously described as being “bored” in a Le Monde editorial.

A few weeks later, May 1968 exploded, as if from nowhere. De Gaulle’s inept handling of the social-cultural revolt led to his departure in 1969, after a referendum he initiated calling for constitutional reforms was defeated.

French president, François Mitterrand, also had a good first ten years, but his last period in office up to 1995 was a disaster.

France has now changed the rules to make French presidential terms five years long each, but no one thinks that a future French president will manage to stay in power for more than a decade.

More 10 year episodes

Spain’s most successful prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, had ten glorious years of modernizing Spain after 1982 during the so-called Movida era. But he insisted on going on and on.

After a great decade, his last years in power were marred by secret death squads formed to kill ETA terrorists and ever-increasing levels of party political corruption. That issue still plagues Spain to this day.

So if there is an iron law of European politics, it is for leaders to get out at the top as the ten-year rule completes its cycle. Once a dominant leader has lasted in office past the decade mark, something, somewhere happens.

Or someone or some new political force emerges that destroys the once unchallenged master (or mistress) of government and politics.

What makes this iron law even harsher is that, in Merkel’s case, as was the case in Britain in 1989 or in France in 1968 or indeed Germany in 1994, there was no immediate threat to Mrs. Merkel’s leadership. There was also the belief in “après moi le deluge” and that the supreme leader would go on and on.

To be sure, her hanger-ons who depend on her patronage don’t want her to go. And the rest of Europe and the world have got used to Mrs. Merkel in her trouser suit and calm, common sense politics.

But as the refugee crisis now makes plain, she is not immortal. Another iron law of democratic politics is that no one is indispensable and there are always others waiting to do the job.

Mrs. Merkel long believed that she could buck the “rule of ten” and be perpetually successful. Of course, all rules are made to be broken and it is far from certain that she still believes that she has events under her control.

If she insists on beating Konrad Adenauer’s 14 year term in office or outdoing Helmut Kohl’s 16 years (and thus staying as Chancellor until 2021), she may be able to sit like a latter-day Queen Victoria. But as she will recall, the last years for Adenauer and Kohl were sad and bad for Germany and for their CDU party.


Angela Merkel has managed her decade better than any other leader of a major world economy.

The German and European press regularly hail Merkel as the only European leader who counts.

As well as being Queen of Germany, Angela Merkel is Empress of Europe.

If France is now Mrs. Merkel’s very junior partner, Britain is utterly marginalized in Europe.

Merkel faces one fact: No dominant European leader goes beyond 10 years in office without it turning sour and bad.

If there is an iron law of European politics, it is for leaders to get out at the top as the ten-year rule completes its cycle.