- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

BRUSSELS — Sometimes, the plainest-looking, dullest-sounding people have the most interesting stories to tell.

On the face of it, Angela Merkel — the Christian Democrat leader who is likely to become Germany’s next chancellor after today’s national elections — is the childless, humorless, frumpy-suited opposition candidate from the East, who lacks both charisma and political vision.

Scratch the surface, however, and one discovers one of Europe’s most complex and interesting candidates for top political office in a generation — and one that has the potential to radically reform the Continent’s biggest industrial power.

The Merkel story begins half a century ago, when the politician’s father — Pastor Horst Kasner — moved his young family from the bustling West German port city of Hamburg to a small village in the heart of communist East Germany.

For the rest of her life, Mrs. Merkel would be considered an outsider. She spent her childhood as the daughter of a West German priest in atheist East Germany. She learned Russian at school and was active in the Communist Party’s youth organization, while girls her age in the West were learning English and enjoying political freedom. When she joined the Christian Democrat party shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, she was one of the few Protestants in the Catholic-dominated party that has dominated postwar German politics. And in a country where politics and business is still largely a male preserve, she looks set to become Germany’s first female chancellor today.

“Being the daughter of a Protestant minister was not easy in communist East Germany,” said Gerd Langguth, professor of political science at Bonn University and the author of a recently published biography of Mrs. Merkel. “Her parents always told her ‘You must be better than your classmates,’ and a determination to prove herself by overcoming the obstacles in her path has been her hallmark ever since.”

The center-right challenger came into politics late — on the night the Berlin Wall came crashing down, Mrs. Merkel was enjoying a sauna with a female friend — but her rise through the party’s ranks was meteoric. Less than a year after joining the Christian Democrats in 1990, she was catapulted into a government post — minister for women and youth — by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Mr. Kohl took the shy East German with the bowl haircut under his wings, promoting her to environment minister in 1995. But Mrs. Merkel resented being referred to as “Helmut’s girl” and when the father of German reunification became mired in a party-financing scandal, she showed her ruthless streak by publicly turning on her mentor.

In a newspaper article in December 1999, the then-general secretary of the CDU described Mr. Kohl as an “old battle horse” and called on the party to learn to walk without his guiding hand.

After Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s surprise victory over center-right challenger Edmund Stoiber in 2002, Mrs. Merkel moved quickly to fill the vacuum — just as she had after Mr. Kohl’s undignified exit from the German political stage. As both party chief and parliamentary leader, the 51-year-old Mrs. Merkel was the obvious choice to represent the Christian Democrats when Mr. Schroeder called a snap election in July.

At the start of the campaign, the CDU and its liberal partners were 21 points ahead of the Social Democrats, largely as a result of unpopular welfare reforms introduced by Mr. Schroeder and an unemployment rate that has not been rivaled since the 1930s.

But owing to a series of policy and public-relations gaffes by Mrs. Merkel and her team, that lead has been whittled down to 7 percentage points.

Mrs. Merkel is certainly no Mr. Schroeder when it comes to campaigning — where he is telegenic, she is stiff in front of the camera; where the Social Democrat is shamelessly opportunistic and prone to populist oratory, the Christian Democrat dryly explains her party’s plans for government and is reluctant to stoop to dirty campaigning. And where the chancellor clearly loves rolling up his sleeves and pressing the flesh, his challenger looks as if she’d prefer to be reading a science journal.

Being the underdog has its uses, however.

“Merkel’s ordinariness is her biggest advantage,” said Annette Heuser, director of the Brussels office of the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think tank. “Her opponents have always underestimated her ability to play politics at the highest level.”

If Mrs. Merkel wins today, as polls suggest she will, she will inherit a country with low growth, close to 5 million unemployed, a ballooning national debt, a bloated social security system and touchy relations with the United States. The pressure to deliver — on growth, welfare reform and trans-Atlantic ties — will be huge, but Mr. Langguth believes the twice-married former physicist is up to the task.

“She is better prepared for the chancellorship than Schroeder was in 1998,” the author and academic told UPI, citing Mrs. Merkel’s extensive experience in government and as leader of the opposition. “She will do a better job than expected.”


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