- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2005

BERLIN — Angela Merkel, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s conservative challenger, won her party’s overwhelming backing to continue at the helm yesterday, raising her chances to become the first woman to lead Germany following last Sunday’s inconclusive election.

In another boost for Mrs. Merkel, who is trying to form a coalition government with other parties, Mr. Schroeder said he was ready for talks without preconditions, dropping his previous demand that Mrs. Merkel not become chancellor.

The vote of confidence in Mrs. Merkel cemented her position after two days of intense speculation that she had lost the broad support of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) because of its poor election performance.

“It was a good day for the union’s parliamentary faction, which is once again ready to work,” Mrs. Merkel said after the vote she had requested. “We have underlined the fact that we, as the strongest group in parliament, lay claim to forming the government.”

Edmund Stoiber, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, said the alliance’s parliamentary group had given Mrs. Merkel “clear support.” She won 98.6 percent, with only three members voting against her.

The result was higher than the first time she was elected group leader in 2002, with 92.2 percent, as well as the 93.7 percent she received a year later.

“Germany needs a stable government that is capable of acting, and under Angela Merkel’s leadership,” Mr. Stoiber said.

Doubt in Mrs. Merkel’s continued leadership was the buzz of Berlin since Sunday, when the election results came as a huge disappointment for the CDU.

Having started the campaign with a 20-point lead over the SPD, the CDU/CSU and preferred coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), won a majority of less than 1 percent — or three parliamentary seats — over the SPD and its partner, the Greens.

Some politicians and analysts said the CDU’s ambitious economic and social reform package had scared voters, while others blamed the outcome on the country’s lack of acceptance of a divorced, Protestant woman from the former East Germany as their leader.

The CDU/CSU alliance won 35.2 percent on Sunday against 34.3 percent for the SPD. The FDP received 9.8 percent — not enough for the two parties to form a government.

The Greens, whom Mrs. Merkel hopes to woo in a coalition Cabinet with the FDP, received 8.1 percent. The new Left Party of former Communists and a breakaway SPD fraction did slightly better with 8.7 percent, but both Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Schroeder have ruled out partnering with them.

Mr. Schroeder, who said his party had begun coalition talks, sounded much more accommodating about a CDU-SPD “grand coalition” led by Mrs. Merkel yesterday.

“It’s about exploratory talks, a phase in which we must talk to one another about how one will bring about a stable government, which we need at this time,” he said.

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