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German Chancellor and Chairwoman of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) Angela Merkel speaks to the media following meetings of the CDU leadership on November 20, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Merkel confirmed that she will run for a fourth term in office in federal elections scheduled for next year. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
German Chancellor and Chairwoman of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) Angela Merkel speaks to the media following meetings of the CDU leadership on November 20, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Merkel confirmed that she will run for a fourth term in office in federal elections scheduled for next year. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Angela Merkel seen as the great champion of Western liberalism Add to ...

Angela Merkel’s decision to run for a fourth term as Germany’s chancellor has cast her as the great champion of Western liberalism in the face of a growing wave of populism. But it’s a role she seems reluctant to play.

“Everything that’s about how it all depends on me, especially after the elections in the U.S., honours me, but at the same time I find it very much grotesque and almost bizarre,” she told reporters on Sunday in Berlin after announcing that she will run. “No person ... not even with the biggest experience, can turn things in Germany, Europe and in the world more or less to the good, and especially not the chancellor of Germany.”

Those protestations aside, Ms. Merkel will be seen as the one of the last defenders of Western values should she win next year’s election.

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Her pro-immigration policy, wariness of Russia and defence of the European Union, has made her a voice of reason for many in the West. Last week U.S. President Barack Obama praised her as a trusted partner and a “lynchpin in protecting the basic tenets of a liberal, market-based democratic order that has created unprecedented prosperity and security for Europe, but also for the world.” Mr. Obama went so far as to say he supported her bid for a fourth term.

She is also seen as a rock of stability in Europe, where establishment leaders have been under threat. British Prime Minister Theresa May took office last summer after the Brexit vote swept away David Cameron. In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen looks set to make gains in elections next year as President François Hollande’s popularity hits record lows and the conservatives struggle to find a leader to match Ms. Le Pen’s growing appeal. On Sunday, former president Nicolas Sarkozy bowed out of the race to be the conservative candidate, leaving the contest to former prime ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé.

But Ms. Merkel’s leadership has come under attack recently amid a growing backlash to immigration in Germany and across Europe. The European Union is under siege, too, as Britain begins the process of leaving next year and many European countries struggle economically.

Should Ms. Merkel, 62, win another term she will become one of the longest serving chancellors in German history and she will have to deal with a host of challenges.

She’ll be at the centre of the Brexit negotiations, ensuring the EU remains united and Germany’s interests aren’t damaged by a bad trade deal with Britain. She’ll have to find a working relationship with incoming U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been sharply critical of her immigration policies, calling them “a disaster.” Their views also differ sharply on climate change and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Her relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin could change, too. Her fluency in Russian and upbringing in East Germany has made her a key point person in Europe’s aggressive stance toward Mr. Putin and his moves into Eastern Europe. But that will be tested as Mr. Putin warms up to Mr. Trump, who appears less interested in sanctions.

Nonetheless, with Britain tied up in Brexit and France expected to elect a new president, Ms. Merkel will be seen as the de facto leader of Europe and a potential counterbalance to the new U.S. President.

“Merkel is somebody to set the tone. She is somebody to rally allies and partners around this or that decision,” said Dr. Joerg Forbrig, a senior fellow based in Berlin at the think tank The German Marshall Fund of the United States. “She is good at convincing other leaders to sort of join this or that position.”

Dr. Forbrig said Ms. Merkel worked well with Mr. Obama, who had a similar outlook. Despite the uncertainties surrounding Mr. Trump and his hostility toward Ms. Merkel’s immigration policy, Dr. Forbrig expects her to find a way to work with him because of the importance of the relationship between the U.S. and Europe.

“At the moment, nobody can say what form of working relationship and climate there will be between Chancellor Merkel and President Trump. Although I do think that Chancellor Merkel is rational and also pragmatic enough to seek good co-operation with the next president. There is absolutely no way she is going to refuse to work with the U.S.,” he said.

There are plenty of issues for her to face at home, too.

Ms. Merkel has come up against strong opposition in recent months, stemming largely from her decision to accept more than 900,000 refugees last year, many from Syria and Iraq. Her mantra “we can manage it” has backfired amid growing backlash to immigration and the rising popularity of Alternative for Germany, a right-wing party determined to pull Germany out of the EU and restrict immigration. While just three years old, AfD now holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments.

Ms. Merkel has tightened some immigration policies and said she wished she could turn the clock back on the refugee crisis. Her party, the Christian Democrats, has also promised to crack down on migrants who refuse to integrate and “disregard our rule of law and values.”

Germany’s multiparty system makes it difficult for one party to win a majority. As many as six parties could win seats in next year’s election, and most experts expect the Christian Democrats to win the most. The party has ruled out forming a coalition with the AfD and most analysts expect it to form another coalition with the Social Democrats.

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