- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2005

BERLIN — Supporters of German opposition leader Angela Merkel fear gaffes and tactical errors are squandering a huge lead in public opinion polls ahead of elections next month, in which conservatives hope to regain power after seven years of Social Democratic rule.

Few doubt that Mrs. Merkel will become Germany’s next chancellor, but speculation is mounting that she might have to form a so-called “grand coalition” with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democratic Party if she fails to hold on to her opinion poll lead of almost 20 points.

The result could be a government riven by infighting and unable to carry out radical reforms of the labor market and welfare system regarded as crucial to combating unemployment and keeping Germany competitive, analysts say.

Six weeks before polling day on Sept. 18, she has yet to present a Cabinet because powerful Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber hasn’t decided which post he wants, if any, in a Merkel government.

“That’s a big problem because she has no one in place to sell the party’s policies in key areas such as economics and foreign affairs,” said Frank Decker, political scientist at Bonn University. German parties traditionally announce their Cabinet lineups early in a campaign.

Mrs. Merkel’s plan to raise the sales tax by two points — an unusual election promise that reflects how confident she is of winning — has disappointed many within her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Meanwhile, her refusal to agree to more than one U.S.-style television debate with Mr. Schroeder has exposed her to accusations that she fears the media-savvy chancellor.

Mrs. Merkel’s personal speaking engagements have been less than electrifying, contributing to a dip in her approval ratings. Despite widespread unhappiness with his party, Mr. Schroeder remains personally more popular than Mrs. Merkel, leading her 48 percent to 39 percent, according to the Infratest Dimap polling institute.

Mrs. Merkel’s campaign was further weakened when a regional CDU minister said the recent case in which a mother killed her nine babies, reportedly from 1988 to 1999, reflected a loss of Christian values in the former East Germany.

The minister, a former West German general seen as a possible defense minister under Mrs. Merkel, has apologized, but pollsters say he is likely to have hurt the ‘s election chances in the east.

Mrs. Merkel, 51, has been working hard on her image in recent weeks, ditching her standard dark trouser suits and opting for more feminine outfits in pink and salmon that have been well-received by the press.

A new biography and a stream of articles have given insights into this reserved pastor’s daughter who grew up in communist East Germany.

But public relations analysts say she still needs to work on her media skills.

“She always resorts to citing facts and figures rather than telling a story,” said Richard Schuetze of IPSE Communication, a consultant for politicians and businessmen.

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