- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

BERLIN — Conservative leader Angela Merkel, 50, won her party’s nomination yesterday to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in a fall general election that is widely expected to make her Germany’s first female head of government.

The Protestant physicist from the formerly communist east promised to tackle the country’s surging unemployment, weak growth and high debt with a radical program of curbing workers’ rights, revamping the tax system and scaling back bureaucracy.

She was unanimously chosen by a joint meeting of the leadership of Germany’s two conservative parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Smiling amid prolonged and thunderous applause from supporters at her party headquarters in Berlin, Mrs. Merkel told reporters that her election manifesto would spell out an “Agenda of Work” to give hope to the country’s 5 million unemployed.

“Germany isn’t doing well enough. We want it to do better. This isn’t about parties or careers, or being male or female. It’s about serving Germany. I want to serve Germany, ” said Mrs. Merkel, who unlike Mr. Schroeder supported the U.S-led Iraq war.

She also reiterated her opposition to Turkey becoming a full member of the European Union. Sunday’s decision by French voters to reject the proposed EU Constitution partly reflected a justified fear by Europeans that their borders were becoming less clearly defined, she said.

Most opinion polls put support for the conservatives at 47 percent, 18 points ahead of Mr. Schroeder’s Social Democrats. In the history of German elections since World War II, no party has recovered from such a large deficit in just a few months. The election is expected in September or October.

Mr. Schroeder announced on May 22 he would seek to hold a general election this fall, a year earlier than scheduled, after his party lost a state election in its last major stronghold, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

It was the most damaging of nine state election defeats for his center-left party, which has suffered a drastic loss of support because of its unpopular “Agenda 2010” program of welfare cuts and labor market reforms.

Mr. Schroeder’s move to call an early election, ostensibly to win a stronger mandate for further reforms, is seen as a desperate move to avert an open rebellion against his policies by left-wingers in his party, which would have wiped out his slender parliamentary majority of three.

Mrs. Merkel, who has frequently been compared to Margaret Thatcher, lacks the charisma of the former British prime minister, but her reform agenda is more radical than the measures undertaken by Mr. Schroeder over the past two years.

“Labor needs growth and growth needs freedom,” Mrs. Merkel said. “If we understand freedom and competition are the levers of people’s chances in life, we’ll end up creating more solidarity and justice.”

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