- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

BERLIN — Angela Merkel barely scraped together enough votes to become Germany’s first female chancellor, but two months after taking office she is soaring in the polls with her down-to-earth style and pragmatic approach to the office.

Mrs. Merkel has found her feet quickly both at home and abroad with a recipe of blunt realism and careful consensus building. She swiftly dropped pre-election calls for radical steps like tackling Germany’s powerful labor unions, which could have irked her coalition partners and unsettled voters.

Foreign policy has helped her, too. Fellow European leaders have credited Mrs. Merkel with helping secure a deal on the European Union’s future budget, and she made well-received visits to Moscow and Washington, where she stressed a desire to set aside differences over the Iraq war. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was an outspoken opponent of the war.

Mrs. Merkel appears to have succeeded in easing the diplomatic chill between Berlin and Washington without giving up Germany’s refusal to send troops to Iraq and underlining her opposition to the U.S. prison camp for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In the latest rating of the country’s top 20 politicians by Infratest Dimap, 85 percent of those surveyed said they wanted Mrs. Merkel to “play an important role” in the future, responding to the long-running poll’s stock question.

That was a 22 percent jump since October, when the conservative leader began coalition talks with Mr. Schroeder’s Social Democrats. It was also a higher rating than Mr. Schroeder or Mrs. Merkel’s political mentor, Helmut Kohl, ever earned.

Among members of her own conservative Christian Democratic Union, her approval was at 99 percent. The poll, published in the Spiegel newsweekly, surveyed 1,000 persons Jan. 17-18 and had a 3 percent margin of error.

The numbers mark a notable surge from when Mrs. Merkel’s party barely beat Mr. Schroeder’s in parliamentary elections in September.

So far, Mrs. Merkel’s left-right coalition has not fallen victim to bickering as some predicted. And the opposition, made up of conservative Free Democrats, the Greens and the neo-communist Left Party, remains weak and divided.

The mammoth task of reforming Germany’s expensive welfare state will eventually test Mrs. Merkel’s popularity and likely curtail the laudatory newspaper coverage she has received since taking office Nov. 22, said prominent pollster Manfred Guellner of the Forsa agency.

Some commentators credit style as much as policy for Mrs. Merkel’s success.

Before her election, she was subjected to constant sniping from within her male-dominated party. Newspapers picked unflattering photos and portrayed her as a power-hungry loner with few allies within the party.

Yet public opinion has warmed up to the former scientist, who can appear a bit embarrassed at official ceremonies and rarely sets pulses racing with her speeches. She has also burnished her image with a change of hairstyle and a newly discovered readiness to smile.

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