Commentators around the globe have often remarked that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is now the West’s most senior leader.
Moreover, due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s botched start, she is increasingly seen as the de facto leader of the free world.
As is also well known, Mrs. Merkel is now standing for re-election to a fourth term in the federal elections to be held on September 24, 2017. Given that she became Germany’s head of government on November 22, 2005, she will have served for a period of 11 years and 10 months by the time of the upcoming elections.
For all the attention she has received globally in recent times, one vital dimension of her duration in office has so far been completely overlooked. In the entire world, Angela Merkel is now the woman who has led her respective country’s government on a continuous basis for the longest time period in any nation that has more than one million inhabitants.
People often believe that this distinction is held by Indira Gandhi, the former Indian Prime Minister. And true enough, Mrs. Gandhi held that post for 16 years altogether.
However, her full service as prime minister did not stretch across consecutive terms. Gandhi first served in that post from January 1966 to March 1977, an uninterrupted tenure of 11 years and 90 days.
Mrs. Gandhi only reached that extended time period on the back of emergency rule. In 1975, she decided to suspend national elections and attempted to suppress any political opposition during the “Emergency” period, which lasted from June 1975 to March 1977.
By the time of the 1977 elections, Gandhi was so unpopular that she lost her own seat in parliament, as well as her parliamentary majority.
Less than three years later, Indira Gandhi nevertheless managed to return to power, in January 1980. While she governed India for nearly five more years, for a total of 16 years, her end was ignominious: She was assassinated in October 1984 by one of her own bodyguards, in retaliation for a massacre on holy ground in Amritsar, which she had ordered.
The Iron Lady
Few people realize that Britain’s erstwhile “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher, served continuously as Prime Minister of her country for a slightly longer period than Gandhi had in India.
Thatcher was in office from May 1979 to November 1990, for an uninterrupted 11 years and 208 days. That is almost four months (119 more days, to be precise) longer than India’s Indira Gandhi served in her first time as prime minister.
Few know that Angela Merkel surpassed Margaret Thatcher’s length of service earlier this week, on June 19, 2017.
That would give Merkel the title of the woman who has been the longest continuously serving head of her country’s government in modern times, with one single exception.
Dominica has a population of 73,000, the world’s 10th smallest, and a land area of 750 square km (290 square miles).
Record in sight
If Merkel gets reelected to a fourth term and serves it out, she will get to the mark of the longest continuously serving female head of government of any nation in modern times in October 2020.
Among current-day leaders, Merkel is closely trailed in her record by Liberia’s incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took office in January 2006, nearly 60 days after Merkel.
However, Sirleaf is not seeking re-election in the October 2017 presidential election and will thus never overtake Merkel’s record for unbroken tenure, barring unforeseen early or delayed departures.
Women aside, Merkel herself has two other big milestones firmly in her sight. After all, she is just the latest among German heads of government who have served for notably long periods.
Konrad Adenauer, the first German Chancellor after WWII and a truly towering figure of German politics, served for 14 years, from September 1949 to October 1963. Merkel would have to serve until December 2019 to surpass Adenauer’s mark.
And then there is the late Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who just passed away this month. He served 16 years, from October 1982 to October 1998. For Merkel to match his record would require for her to remain Chancellor until November 2021, i.e., all of the way through a widely expected fourth term.
The mighty Bismarck
The record of Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of a united Germany, who served for 19 years, from 1871 to 1890, may remain out of Merkel’s reach.
To beat his record would require a fifth term for Merkel and serving until November 2024. However, the Iron Chancellor was appointed, not elected.
Another person who was not elected but in power for a very long time is Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.
A former German princess from the state of Anhalt, she ruled for about 34 years in the 18th century (from 1762 to 1796). Like Merkel, Catherine played a huge part in shaping Europe, in her case in the pre-revolutionary era.