BERLIN: Germany's veteran Chancellor Angela Merkel has survived multiple crises and outlasted a string of world leaders but now faces a battle for her political life after the collapse of talks to forge a coalition government.
After 12 years at the helm of the EU's biggest economy, the leader often called the world's most powerful woman may now have to contest snap elections at a time she is increasingly described as entering the twilight of her reign.
"Outside of Germany she is viewed with admiration as she enters the 13th year of her chancellorship, but at home the admiration has ebbed," Spiegel Online commented days ago.
With poll support for her conservative bloc around 30 percent, long-invincible Merkel faces sniping from within her own ranks over her refugee policy which sparked a far-right backlash that upended German politics.
Merkel won the September 24 elections, her fourth poll victory, but bled over a million votes to the far-right AfD, plunging her own party into weeks-long coalition talks that have now failed.
The famously cautious and cerebral leader now faces what she hates most -- a time of heightened uncertainty with Germany poised for weeks or even months of political limbo.
- 'Leader of free world' -
Merkel may be down, but few are counting her out just yet, given the many crises she has mastered before.
During her long rule, the pastor's daughter raised behind the Iron Curtain has been derided as Europe's "austerity queen", cheered as a saviour by refugees and hailed as the new "leader of the free world".
In the turbulent times of Trump, Brexit and multiple global crises, the 63-year-old was long seen as the bedrock in a country concerned with maintaining its enviable growth and employment rates.
Germans have thanked her by keeping her in power ever since she became their youngest and first female chancellor in 2005, a contemporary of long-gone leaders like George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac.
"Mutti" (Mummy) Merkel, with her pragmatic, modest and reassuringly bland style, seemed to have perfected the art of staying in power in a wealthy, ageing nation that tends to favour stability over change.
Seemingly devoid of vanity and indifferent to the trappings of power, she lives in a Berlin flat with her media-shy scientist husband Joachim Sauer, shops in a local supermarket and spends holidays hiking in the Alps.
When international newspapers, after Trump's surprise victory last year, declared Merkel the new torch-bearer of liberal democracy, she waved off the accolade as "grotesque and absurd".
Though frequently criticised for sitting out tough challenges, Merkel has punctuated her reign with bold decisions -- from scrapping nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster to opening German borders to more than a million asylum seekers since 2015.
But the migrant influx cost her dearly, both with voters and EU neighbours, and may one day come to be seen as the beginning of the end for Merkel.
Merkel was born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1954 in the northern port city of Hamburg.
Weeks later her father, a leftist Lutheran clergyman, moved the family to a small town in the communist East at a time when most people were headed the other way.
Biographers say life in a police state taught Merkel to hide her true thoughts behind a poker face.
Like most students, she joined the state's socialist youth movement but rejected an offer to inform for the Stasi secret police while also staying clear of risky pro-democracy activism.
A top student, she excelled in Russian, which would later help her keep up the dialogue with President Vladimir Putin, who was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
During that momentous upheaval, Merkel joined the nascent Democratic Awakening group, which later merged with the Christian Democrats (CDU) of then-chancellor Helmut Kohl, who fondly if patronisingly dubbed Merkel his "girl".
Merkel's mentor was not the last politician to underestimate her and pay the price.
When Kohl became embroiled in a campaign finance scandal in 1999, Merkel openly urged her party to drop the self-declared "old warhorse".
The move, which has been described as "Merkelvellian", kicked off her meteoric rise.
Until recently she was seen likely to beat the 16-year reign of Kohl, but since the overnight collapse of coalition talks, all bets are off.