ESSEN, Germany — Five months into the worst crisis of their history, opposition Christian Democrats proclaimed a "new beginning" Monday by formally electing a woman from the ex-Communist east as party leader and insisting that the funding scandal bequeathed by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl is now behind them.
But even before Angela Merkel could offer her first words of wisdom, conservative stalwarts with doubts about the new direction made clear that a two-day convention wouldn't cover over many of the differences within the party.
Kohl, who brought dishonor on himself and the Christian Democratic Union by admitting that he accepted at least $1 million in illegal contributions while in office, did not attend the convention, which was aimed at putting to rest the affair that has devastated his legacy as Europe's greatest living statesman.
Wolfgang Schaeuble, Kohl's successor who was forced to step down as party leader two months ago because of his own involvement in the slush fund scandal, called on fellow conservatives to find "courage for the truth." However, he failed to shed any new light on his own role in handling suspect donations.
It was the convention's chairman, Juergen Ruettgers, who struck the most discordant note, with a speech fanning a bitter debate over whether to allow immigrants to fill high-technology jobs open for lack of qualified Germans.
Ruettgers is the party's gubernatorial candidate for next month's election in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous of Germany's 16 states and the last to hold elections before 2002. His campaign slogan Kinder statt Inder--which translates as "Children instead of Indians"--has drawn criticism even from inside the party as pandering to anti-foreigner sentiments.
Industry analysts say at least 75,000 high-tech jobs in Germany are open because of inadequate education programs. Ruettgers wants to train Germans for such jobs rather than issue more visas for specialists, many of whom come from India.
Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who defeated Kohl, the legendary "chancellor of unity," in 1998 elections, took a potshot at the opposition in Monday's mass-circulation Bild newspaper, saying he was doubtful the soft-spoken Merkel "will manage to keep the party under control."
Despite the unapologetic attitude of her more conservative colleagues, Merkel was elected unopposed to the party chairmanship with a 96% "yes" vote.
The 45-year-old physicist's liberal views on abortion, divorce and social welfare make many in the predominantly Catholic party uneasy. However, she drew cheers with her confident proclamation that the Christian Democrats had rebounded after the finance scandal.
"It's over. We're back," she told fellow delegates in this city in the heart of Germany's rust belt.
"Every crisis is also an opportunity, and we will boldly seize the opportunity this crisis has given us," vowed Merkel, promising feisty opposition to Schroeder's left-of-center government.
But in the paralyzing aftermath of the November disclosures that Kohl and his colleagues squirreled away untold millions in shady contributions, Schroeder has succeeded in wooing many former Christian Democratic Union supporters. Newly enacted tax breaks and incentives for job creation have won over industrial leaders to Schroeder's side, as well as given hope for further cuts in unemployment to the party's traditional labor backers.
The Christian Democrats have bounced back from the nadir of their popularity ratings, which fell below 30% early this year.
Monday's opening day of the party's 13th national convention also endorsed Ruprecht Polenz of Muenster as party general secretary to succeed Merkel in her old job. Deutsche Bank executive Ulrich Cartellieri was confirmed as party treasurer, a job likely to be under intense scrutiny in the wake of the finance scandal. Four other party veterans round out a seven-member executive committee.
Senior Christian Democrats who have remained untainted by the scandal expressed hope that new faces at the top will help bring order to the rank and file.
"This is our 13th convention, and a lot of people think that's an unlucky number," parliamentarian Karl Lamers told fellow delegates and supporters at a luncheon. "Here's hoping it marks a turnaround for us instead."