Gender and Geography Shift at Germany's Helm

Times Staff Writer

A pastor's daughter known for her steely ambition, Angela Merkel capped a remarkable rise through German politics Tuesday by becoming her nation's first female chancellor and the first to have grown up in the then-communist east.

The 51-year-old conservative, the youngest person in the postwar period to reach the chancellor's office, will lead Europe's largest economy as head of a fragile coalition that faces high unemployment, low growth and the need to reform the welfare state. Less a charismatic campaigner than a sober tactician, Merkel is expected to rely on her gifts of persuasion to keep the government from splintering along party lines.

"I swear I will dedicate my efforts to the well-being of the German people," said Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union, wearing a dark pantsuit as she raised her right hand and read the oath of office in Parliament. "So help me God."

The scene was unceremonious and businesslike, much like the new chancellor's brief, yet stunning political career. A physicist raised in an East German farm town, Merkel did not begin her political resume until 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. Known for her shrewdness and analytical decision-making, she quickly rose through the ranks of the CDU and was credited for an intellectual rigor that sometimes made her appear aloof.

"This is a strong signal for many women and surely for some men too," Norbert Lammert, speaker of the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, told Merkel after legislators voted 397 to 202 to name her chancellor to replace Gerhard Schroeder.

Schroeder walked over to Merkel after the vote and was the first one to congratulate her. The new chancellor told reporters afterward: "I feel good, and I'm very content. I'm happy."

Her ascension followed two months of contentious negotiations between the CDU and Schroeder's left-leaning Social Democrats to form a coalition government after neither party won a clear majority in September elections. Power-sharing talks nearly collapsed, but Merkel compromised amid fears that failure to form a new government would outrage voters and further weaken the German economy.

The government's immediate challenges are to shrink an 11% unemployment rate and reduce social programs that account for 48% of the national budget. The coalition has agreed to the outlines of such a plan, but vast differences remain over Germany's hallowed vision of social democracy. This was evident Tuesday when 51 members of the 448-seat coalition voted in a secret ballot against Merkel's chancellorship.

Such domestic fragility is not deterring Merkel from moving quickly on foreign affairs. She leaves today for Paris to meet with French President Jacques Chirac and then heads to Brussels for talks with North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union members. She is expected to visit President Bush in Washington early next year in an effort to repair relations damaged by Schroeder's vigorous opposition to the Iraq war.

"Merkel will bring a change in atmospherics between the U.S. and Germany," said Gunther Hellmann, a political analyst at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. "She will find a new consensus on foreign policy. But she won't send troops to Iraq. Even the U.S.'s other European allies want to get out of Iraq. So how could this coalition government convince the German public to send soldiers?"

Hellmann added that Merkel would most likely take a lead role in rekindling strategic ties between Europe and Washington while adopting a less cozy friendship with Moscow than the one characterized by Schroeder's frequent praise of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

In taking office, Merkel has become the first woman since former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to lead one of Europe's major industrialized nations.

"She will have a tough job in a man's world," Anna-Maria Pauly, a Berlin grandmother and newspaper vendor, said of the new chancellor. "Most men, no matter what political side, will envy her power. What I hope for is more humanity. We are really in a mess, and so many things need to be sorted out. I wish her luck, and I hope she has good advisors."

But geography, not gender, was the more impassioned topic for many Germans in recent days. Equality issues were decided years ago, they said, pointing to Merkel's success within the male bastion of the CDU. Merkel's new power, however, highlights another phenomenon in German politics: an emerging class of young politicians brought up in the communist east, including Merkel's rival, Matthias Platzeck, 51, the new leader of the Social Democrats.

"It's not a big deal anymore that the chancellor's a woman," said Dietmar Herz, a political scientist at Erfurt University. "There's more discussion these days about leaders coming from the former East Germany. They're more pragmatic. They come from outside the political systems and ideologies" that have guided German parties in the post-World War II era.

Born in Hamburg, Merkel was under a year old when her father, Horst Kasner, a Lutheran pastor, moved the family east to Templin. He had been intrigued by communism but grew disillusioned as Soviet influence deepened across Eastern Europe.

In her high school years, Merkel focused more on science and mathematics than on politics. And like many of her East German classmates, she enrolled in the communist-run Young Pioneers -- not for ideological reasons, but to improve her chances of being accepted at university, which she attended in Leipzig. Merkel's political awakening began in 1989 when she acted as spokeswoman for a fledgling democratic organization.

As a new CDU member in 1990, she impressed thenChancellor Helmut Kohl during the early days of German reunification. He appointed her to two Cabinet posts, first as minister for women and youth and then the portfolio for the environment, giving her the cachet to rise in CDU leadership circles.

She shunned makeup, lacked the gregarious wit of Schroeder and was criticized for her staid clothes and pageboy haircut. Germans have found her reticent and, at times, inscrutable. But she is also regarded as a politician of integrity with a keen mind and fierce determination.

Her private life is rarely mentioned. She married Ulrich Merkel in 1977 and they divorced in 1982; since 1998 she has been married to Joachim Sauer, a leading German chemist. She has no children.

Her analytical approach was articulated in a comment to the weekly Die Zeit: "When it was my turn in school, it took me 45 minutes to jump from a 3-meter diving board. I jumped only in the very last minute, when I could already hear the time ringing out. I think that means I am courageous in decisive moments. But I need considerable warming up time and try to consider many aspects in advance."

Her political instincts nearly cost the CDU the elections on Sept. 18. The party had been well ahead in the polls since May, when Schroeder, unable to gain support within his Social Democrats for economic reforms, called the early elections. But Merkel's indications that she would raise taxes and cut social programs enabled Schroeder to narrow the gap. The CDU won 35% of the vote, compared with the Social Democrats' 34%.

Schroeder's refusal to concede forced Merkel into coalition talks. Some analysts predicted she would fail, but she regained her composure and negotiated an agreement that included weakening her plan for reforms and awarding half the seats in her Cabinet to Social Democrats. Both parties had been feeling pressure from an anxious public to find a compromise after two months of political disarray.

Merkel acknowledged this when she arrived at the chancellery and was greeted by Schroeder before he departed. She credited the two-term Schroeder for marking a milestone by beginning social and economic reforms, adding that, "the expectations of the people in the country are very big. We will have a lot of work to do."

The parties in the Merkel coalition "will really make an effort so this government will last three or four years," Hellmann said.

Uwe Hellwig, a Berlin businessman, expressed the sentiment many Germans have for the new chancellor: "I hope and expect a boost for the German economy. I voted for Merkel, not because of Merkel as a person, but because I wanted a change. I think she can handle the big challenges. She's completely un-vain, that's what we need now."

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Meteoric career

* Born: Angela Dorothea Kasner on July 17, 1954, in Hamburg, West Germany. Raised in Templin, north of Berlin in communist East Germany.

* Education: Degree in physics, University of Leipzig, 1978. Doctorate, 1986.

* Career: Chairwoman, Christian Democratic Union, 2000-present. Chairwoman, Christian Democratic legislative delegation, 2002-present. General secretary, Christian Democratic Union, 1998-2000. Environment minister, 1994-98. Minister for women and youth, 1991-94. Member of Parliament, 1991-present. Spokeswoman for first and last democratically elected East German government, 1990. Researcher, Institute for Physical Chemistry, East German Academy of Sciences, 1978-90.

* Personal: Married to Joachim Sauer, professor of chemistry at Berlin's Humboldt University, since 1998. Divorced from Ulrich Merkel. No children.

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Petra Falkenberg and Christian Retzlaff of The Times' Berlin Bureau contributed to this report.

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