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Merkel's moment

October 12, 2005

THE RESULTS ARE FINALLY IN, three weeks after inconclusive balloting, and Angela Merkel is set to become Germany's next leader. It's a historic milestone on two fronts: Merkel will be the Federal Republic's first female chancellor, and she will be the first leader hailing from what was once communist East Germany. From this side of the Atlantic, the significance of her ascension is not only symbolic: Gerhard Schroeder's departure from the scene removes a leader who did much to contribute to a deterioration of the pivotal German-American relationship.

Because no natural alliance of parties had a decisive majority of votes last month, Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union is paying a high price for the chancellor's office. In exchange for Schroeder's retirement, his ostensibly defeated Social Democratic Party has claimed eight of 14 government ministries, including foreign affairs and finance, in a "grand coalition."

The new government will be under a great deal of pressure to reduce Germany's double-digit unemployment rate and reignite economic growth. The challenge for Merkel is to turn this political power-sharing arrangement into an opportunity, not a liability. Can both parties unite to embrace changes that may prove painful in the short run, such as reductions in some of the government's social benefits? Or does their collaboration ensure that no real reform will take place?

In the international arena, Merkel is keen to improve ties with Washington that were frayed over the Iraq war; Schroeder opportunistically opposed any united front against Saddam Hussein as early as the summer of 2002. Merkel also will be less beholden to French President Jacques Chirac and more amenable to supporting Britain on some intra-European disputes.

Merkel's past opposition to Turkish membership in the European Union is more worrisome, and she should not be tempted as chancellor to play the anti-immigrant card that is so popular among her more conservative supporters. Her relations with Muslims, both at home and abroad, will be an important barometer of the new leader's growth on the job.

Still, for now, it is worth lingering on the historic wonder of a 51-year-old female physicist raised behind the Iron Curtain assuming the top job in Europe's largest democracy.

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