- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

BERLIN — Senior German conservatives said yesterday they would back Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel as their candidate in a snap election this fall, raising the prospect that Germany will get a politician often compared to Margaret Thatcher as its first female leader.

Leaders of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) meet on Monday to formally decide on the nomination, but the powerful governors of the CDU-ruled states of Hesse and Lower Saxony — Roland Koch and Christian Wulff — both said the pastor’s daughter from eastern Germany was almost certain to get universal backing.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, shaken by an election defeat on Sunday in his party’s stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia announced that he would seek to hold a general election a year ahead of schedule as he was no longer certain that the public backed his economic reforms. The state is home to nearly one in four Germans.

Mrs. Merkel, a physicist who came to prominence in the CDU during the 1990s when then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl appointed her to his Cabinet, looked confident as she addressed the press yesterday.

“This election will present the public with very clear choices, and I think we can be self-confident in that respect,” she told reporters after a meeting.

The vote in North Rhine-Westphalia was the latest and most damaging in a string of regional election defeats for Mr. Schroeder’s center-left Social Democrats (SPD) caused by public anger over his welfare cuts and his government’s failure to cut unemployment and boost growth.

The government no longer has a majority in the upper house of parliament and can only get important legislation passed through lengthy horse-trading with the conservatives. Sunday’s victory increased the CDU’s stranglehold on the upper house.

Mr. Schroeder’s move to call a snap election is seen as a bold gamble that few commentators expect to pay off. Opinion polls show the CDU more than 15 points ahead of his party. SPD leaders hope that the prospect of a general election will instill discipline in the party’s ranks and deter left-wingers from calling for a reversal of Mr. Schroeder’s cuts in welfare benefits.

Germany’s stock market advanced yesterday on hopes that a CDU general election victory will end the parliamentary gridlock by producing a powerful conservative government with majorities in both houses of parliament.

Mrs. Merkel’s support of cuts in workers rights and more radical welfare reforms than Mr. Schroeder has proposed has earned her the title of Germany’s Margaret Thatcher. But she lacks the charisma and decisiveness of the former British prime minister and could be hurt by her support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq, which is unpopular in Germany.

She became leader in 2000 after a funding scandal hit the CDU, and has struggled to stamp her authority on the party. She failed to win the nomination to challenge Mr. Schroeder in the 2002 election, when her party opted instead for Bavarian Gov. Edmund Stoiber.

But Mr. Stoiber lost to Mr. Schroeder, and Mrs. Merkel has gained the support of skeptics by presiding over successive regional election victories.

“It’s Merkel’s hour,” the conservative daily Die Welt wrote yesterday.

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