Merkel To Succeed Germany's Schroeder

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 11, 2005

BERLIN, Oct. 10 -- Angela Merkel, a physicist-turned-politician who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, will become the first female chancellor in German history, under a deal the country's two biggest political parties announced Monday to form an unusual coalition.

Merkel will succeed Gerhard Schroeder, the two-term chancellor and steadfast critic of U.S. policy in Iraq whose government was defeated in national elections three weeks ago.

Merkel, 51, has promised to revive the once-mighty German economy by paring the country's extensive but increasingly unaffordable social safety net. The jobless rate in Germany, the world's largest exporter and third-largest economy, hit a record high of 12 percent this year, and growth has been weak for years.

Merkel has also pledged unspecified steps to improve relations with the United States, traditionally Germany's closest ally, and put behind the tensions of the Schroeder years.

The daughter of a Protestant minister who moved his family to East Germany in 1954, Merkel did not become politically active until after the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989. The woman who will become the first easterner to head the reunified country has remained for many Germans an enigma, a politician who rarely lets her emotions show.

She works hard to conceal her private life, usually appearing in public with her husband, a Berlin science professor, only once a year at an opera festival in Bavaria.

At a news conference Monday to announce that her Christian Democrats had reached a deal with Schroeder's Social Democrats to form a new government, Merkel almost neglected to mention that she would become chancellor. She didn't smile once while reading a four-minute statement and revealed little of her vision for governing Europe's largest country.

"It was like she was announcing her own funeral," said Gerd Mielke, a political scientist at the University of Mainz.

Pressed by reporters to describe her feelings, Merkel relented -- a little. "I'm doing well, I'm in a good mood," she said. "But I have a lot of work in front of me."

The Christian Democrats are the largest right-of-center group in the country, favoring less regulation of business and tougher immigration rules. They narrowly won a plurality of the vote in the Sept. 18 elections but were forced to enter into an awkward ruling coalition with the Social Democrats, a party with roots in the labor movement, because neither side was able to forge a majority alliance in Parliament with Germany's smaller political parties.

As part of the deal, the Christian Democrats will control the chancellorship, the cabinet-level chief of staff post and six cabinet seats in the federal government. The Social Democrats won the right to fill eight cabinet ministries. The Christian Democrats have control of the presidency, a largely ceremonial post, which was factored into the negotiations.

It will be the first time in almost 40 years that Germany will be ruled by a "grand coalition" of the two parties. How the normally bitter rivals will get along is an open question.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company