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Merkel to Make German History as Chancellor

A coalition deal paves way for the conservative raised in communist East Germany to become the first woman to lead the nation.

October 11, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Germany will soon swear in its first female chancellor after two leading political parties agreed Monday to form a coalition government around Angela Merkel, a conservative physicist raised in the former communist east.

Following weeks of public bickering and quiet negotiating, the deal crystallized when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced he would step aside and allow his Social Democratic Party to share power with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

The deal was orchestrated by leaders of both parties but must be approved by their wider memberships. The parties are expected to agree, but Merkel's appointment will probably be delayed until next month.

Germany has been in political disarray since a Sept. 18 election gave neither party a clear majority. Schroeder initially refused to concede, but the pressures of a troubled economy and an agitated public forced him to accept compromise. Schroeder and Merkel spent recent nights negotiating Cabinet posts and finessing an agreement that hard-liners in their parties could accept.

"We have achieved something big," Merkel said at a news conference after a morning negotiating session that assured her the chancellery. "We have set our aim to create a coalition that stands for new policies. We want to work together for the people of this country."

When asked how she felt about the seemingly certain prospect of becoming chancellor, a tired-looking Merkel smiled and responded: "I'm doing well. I'm in a good mood, but I have a lot of work ahead of me."

The presumed chancellor did not elaborate on foreign policy, but indicated she would strengthen relations with the U.S., which have been strained by German opposition to the Iraq war.

"That doesn't mean we have to agree on every issue," Merkel said, referring to Washington. "But there needs to be a good, trustful relationship."

Merkel's remarkable ascension through Germany's male-dominated politics means Schroeder's seven years in office are nearing an end. An affable leader with a fondness for cigars and crisp suits, Schroeder began reforming his nation's vast welfare state but failed to reduce high unemployment and bolster the economy. He may be best remembered for challenging President Bush on Iraq and urging Germany to move beyond the stigma of its Nazi past to become a world player.

Schroeder had no immediate statement on his future, but it appeared he would not have a role in the new government.

"I have a different plan for my life," he reportedly told a German newspaper.

Merkel, a skilled political pragmatist who prefers back-room maneuverings to campaign trail politics, lacks Schroeder's flair and media savvy.

Her near-bungling of the election, including announcing a flat-tax proposal days before the vote, has raised questions about her ability to lead a country of 82 million. But her intellectual rigor helped her quickly regain her composure and quiet party dissenters. A recent poll suggests that more voters would pick her over Schroeder as chancellor in a coalition.

Merkel's rise has been extraordinary. A married scientist with no children, she was not active in communist opposition groups in the former East Germany. Her political career began in earnest in 1990 after then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl singled her out for her discipline and organizational abilities. She became a skilled strategist, outflanking other CDU officials to lead the party in 2000.

"This new start and new coalition offer us new opportunities," Merkel said Monday. "We are obligated to achieve success. We must succeed."

The political deadlock in what was nicknamed the "chancellor war" emerged three weeks ago when Merkel, a reticent political tactician, squandered a 20-point lead in the polls to finish 1 percentage point ahead of the Social Democrats. It was an embarrassing setback for the conservative CDU. But that party, including some officials who had wanted to replace Merkel, ultimately rallied around the 51-year-old daughter of a Lutheran minister.

Schroeder's charisma and adamant tone after the election gave Social Democrats leverage in negotiating Cabinet posts. Under the agreement, Merkel was forced into major concessions, giving the SPD eight ministries, including foreign, justice, and labor and social affairs. Her party will control the chancellery, six ministries and an additional Cabinet post.

Merkel said this equal division within the Cabinet meant it would not be possible "for one to overrule the others."

The coalition is called "grand," but it is expected to be fragile. The closeness of the election underscored German apprehension over social and economic reforms necessary to reduce 11.6% unemployment and rejuvenate Europe's largest economy. Schroeder called for moderate reforms and cuts to the generous welfare state. Merkel has proposed harsher measures, but Schroeder's rise in the polls before the election indicates the CDU may have to temper its plan.

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