After years of working toward her goal, Angela Merkel is just a technicality away from running for Germany's highest office. Which begs the question: Is Germany ready for a woman chancellor?
Oh, happy day: Merkel's mood soared as her CDU took a key state
A reporter recently asked Angela Merkel, "Are you tough?" The 50-year-old politician replied, "Let's just say I'm persistent."
And her persistence has paid off. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), just won a glaring victory in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which was widely seen as a plebiscite on the current national Social Democrat government. Now, few doubts remain that she will be put forward as the candidate for chancellor, in snap elections to be held as soon as this fall.
Angela Merkel answering journalists' questions
As the question of her candidacy becomes more immediate, pundits have begun wondering if Merkel is Germany's answer to Margaret Thatcher. Known as the Iron Lady, Thatcher was England's first female head of state, and a decidedly conservative one at that.
Merkel is basically a careful person -- sometimes even skeptical or distrustful. That isn't likely to change. While she may be at the height of her powers right now, the past five months have proved that her caution was indeed called for. As recently as February, prior to the surprise victory of her party in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, she had her back pinned tightly against the wall.
At the time, many of those in the CDU leadership took a typical "bystander" attitude, waiting to see what would happen to "Madame Chairwoman." And Merkel herself felt left in the lurch, having wasted the entire second half of 2004 in internal fighting with the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU (Christian Socialists), over plans for a much disputed health-care reform package.
Merkel with CSU chief Edmund Stoiber
Her response? To prove her full dedication to the party. She upended her appointment calendar and increased her stumping appearances in the north. "I don't want to leave myself open to reproach," she explained, even as some were predicting Merkel would soon be singing a swan song.
Dedication paid off
In the end, the CDU leader was graced with the most important quality a politician can have, after competence and persistence: luck. The Social Democrat Prime Minister of Schleswig Holstein, Heide Simonis, was unseated by local CDU leader Peter Harry Carstensen in an upset decision. The public was stunned by new jobless figures of five million. The "visa affair" that rocked Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer added to the uncertainty of SPD voters. The CDU won in the north, against all prognoses, thus effectively ending the discussion over Merkel's ability to lead her party.
Merkel now looks set to be Germany's first-ever female candidate for chancellor. But then, she is no stranger to "firsts." Since 2000, she has been the first female CDU chairwoman, as well as the first woman at the head of the parliamentary party.
Not your typical CDU member
Merkel's biography -- she is a divorced Protestant, from eastern Germany, with no children -- isn't one typically associated with the CDU. Rather, the party is known for its conservative Catholic roots, and for being dominated by men from the western part of Germany.
Yet she was elected to the party chairmanship in 2000, amid a donation scandal. And in at the next party congress in 2004, in Düsseldorf, she tried to bring her history into harmony with that of the party, and succeeded.
Friedrich Merz had to go.
From the beginning, the grass roots CDU members were more in favor than the party functionaries, of taking a chance on the PhD physicist from the east. Merkel had to defend herself against numerous opponents. It was often difficult and time-consuming, but one by one, she found her supporters and close aides. Her image suffered as a result. But after she ousted Friedrich Merz (photo) as parliamentary party chairman in 2002, she went on the offensive.
Unified vision needed
During the Iraq conflict, Merkel separated herself from the red-green leadership in favor of a pro-American course. Domestically, she wants to take a leading role in reforms. Thus far, she has waged a bitter battle with the CSU over health care reform. She survived it, but her plan came out severely weakened.
Ahead of the snap elections that everyone professes to support, there is one thing Merkel and other CDU-CSU leaders, will not say. At least not out loud. And that is, due to the rushed election, the CDU and CSU have a platform dilemma. The need to settle certain political issues and platforms prior to an election, so that they will not become problems during a CDU-CSU reign, has not been solved. Small signs of reform can be seen on questions of taxes and nursing care insurance.
But a definitive political platform is still lacking for the woman who may just become the first female chancellor of Germany.