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Germany: Angela Merkel’s Aspirations

4 minute read
Andrew Purvis/Berlin

Angela Merkel, the front runner to become Germany’s next Chancellor, developed her style early. As a 12-year-old growing up in the communist eastern part of the country, she was asked by a swimming teacher to experiment with a low diving board at the local pool. She edged to the end and stopped. Forty minutes passed before she jumped in. “I need a lot of start-up time,” Merkel told a local journalist. “I am not spontaneously courageous.”

Merkel, 51, has been no less meticulous in charting her political campaign. As leader of the Christian Democratic Union, she will be running in federal elections Sept. 18 against Gerhard Schröder, whose Social Democrats have shared power with the Green Party since 1998. Unlike Schröder, Merkel doesn’t make grand promises, preferring to talk about, say, trimming waste in the health-care system or tweaking consumer tax rates. Judging from polls, the strategy is working: the Christian Democrats last week led the Social Democrats by 13 points, though 29% of voters say they’re still undecided. Merkel was feeling upbeat enough last week to take on her most voluble rivals. At a televised roundtable of candidates, she even managed to silence Joschka Fischer, the garrulous leader of the Greens and Germany’s Foreign Minister. “You will listen to me,” she intoned when he interrupted her, elucidating her tax plan. He did.

Merkel’s manner belies a quiet revolution in European politics. If elected, she will become Germany’s first female Chancellor, a big accomplishment in a political culture in which women still struggle against a glass ceiling. And she’d be the first Chancellor in a unified Germany to have grown up in the communist east. “Ten years ago, the idea that we’d have a female Chancellor from East Germany would have raised nothing but laughs,” says political analyst Alfons Söllner. “Today it will make people proud.”

The daughter of a Protestant minister, Merkel was born in Hamburg and grew up in the East German resort town of Templin. She joined the Young Pioneers, a communist youth group, but focused mainly on her studies. At home, her family talked politics nonstop, but, she said in her autobiography, “it was completely theoretical because we could not change anything.” After studying physics at Leipzig University, she began looking for work. Applying for a job at a technical institute, she was approached by the secret police to spy on colleagues. She says she begged off, telling them she couldn’t keep her mouth shut. They left her alone. But she didn’t get the teaching job.

Merkel received her introduction to Western politics when Helmut Kohl, Germany’s larger-than-life Chancellor, tapped her as Minister for Women and Youth for his Cabinet in 1991. She established herself as both ambitious and willing to learn, outmaneuvering a succession of male colleagues to take the party leadership in 2000. “She’s criticized for being timid,” says political scientist Gerd Langguth, her biographer, “but she’s a political panther.”

Aides say her experience in East Germany helped shape her pro-market philosophy, while her scientific training, as one puts it, means she “thinks like a Westerner.” If elected, Merkel will inherit an unemployment rate of almost 12%, the highest since World War II. Expect her to cut income taxes, raise the consumer tax and introduce labor reforms aimed at attracting more foreign investment. Relations with Britain and the U.S. could well improve; Schröder famously fell out with President George W. Bush over Washington’s decision to invade Iraq. Merkel was against the war too but criticized Schröder for being too rigid.

In the previous election, in 2002, Schröder won a come-from-behind victory after trailing badly in the polls, thanks in part to his opposition to Bush on Iraq. This time he is questioning Washington’s policy toward Iran–but isn’t scoring the same political points. Merkel maintains a lead that would give her and her coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, a narrow majority. “History doesn’t repeat itself, and if it does, it is only as farce,” she told the German magazine Stern last week. Germans may in fact be ready for a change. And Angela Merkel–now that she has taken her time to think it through–is ready too. –With reporting by William Boston/Berlin, Ursula Sautter/Bonn and Regine Wosnitza/Templin

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