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Germany

Decision Time for Germany's "Iron Lady"

Opposition leader Angela Merkel has her work cut out for her at a party meeting starting on Monday. She needs to salvage sinking support for her Christian Union bloc and shore up her own run for the chancellery in 2006.

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Angela Merkel (right) getting ready for the big event

Merkel, who became head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2000 in the wake of a party financing investigation targeting her mentor, former chancellor Helmut Kohl, has always been an odd match for her party.

As a Protestant woman from the ex-communist east who has been divorced, she does not fit the profile of the solidly western, exclusively male, often Roman Catholic leaders who have led the party since World War II.

Angela Merkel als Kunstwerk

Merkel as work of art.

Merkel, 50, is frequently compared to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the press for her ambition to become Germany's first female leader.

But Merkel has watched her party's overwhelming lead over Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats evaporate in recent months, thanks to a series of gaffes and repeated sniping from her male rivals.

The two-day congress in the western city of Düsseldorf will give Merkel a chance to focus on the hot-button issues preoccupying voters: the stagnant economy and what she calls the "failed" vision of a multicultural society.

The party will table a motion called "In German Interest: Encouraging Integration, Fighting Islamism" calling for more integration courses for foreigners and sanctions for newcomers who refuse to participate.

We're all friends again

Merkel has already begun putting on a show of partnership with Edmund Stoiber, head of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and her chief rival for the 2006 nomination as chancellor candidate, by penning a letter with him which was sent to Chancellor Schröder over the weekend opposing Turkey's entry into the European Union.

Pressekonferenz Stoiber Merkel

Angela Merkel with Edmund Stoiber

In the letter, she and Stoiber reiterated the Christian bloc's opposition to Turkey joining the EU -- a view shared by a substantial percentage of the population -- and renewed calls for a "privileged partnership" with the mainly Muslim country.

They said that Turkey's entry would "overstretch" the EU.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, which published extracts from the letter, said the two leaders wanted the document to be seen as a sign of unity ahead of the party meeting. A major goal is to show the public that past differences with its sister party over other policy and leadership issues have been resolved.

Focus on values

As approval ratings for the conservatives have dropped and the once comfortable goal of winning the next federal election in 2006 has been put at risk, conservatives are shifting their center slightly, moving away from nuts and bolts discussions of policy to the softer issue of "values."

The term and debate around a German Leitkultur, or "guiding culture," has surfaced again and led to accusations that the CDU is pandering to anti-foreigner fears, especially as the question over the integration of the nation's Muslim minority has come into sharp focus.

Ein Soldat der Bundeswehr

Ein Soldat der Bundeswehr salutiert, während vor ihm die deutsche Fahne weht (aufgenommen am 23.4.2004 in Speyer). Verteidigungsminister Struck (SPD) will gegen das Kölner Gerichtsurteil zur Einberufungspraxis der Bundeswehr Rechtsmittel einlegen. "Ich bin nach wie vor der Überzeugung, dass unser Rechtsstandpunkt sich vor dem Bundesverwaltungsgericht durchsetzen wird", sagte Struck am 23. April 2004. Das Verwaltungsgericht hatte entschieden, dass die derzeitige Einberufungsregelung gegen das Willkürverbot des Grundgesetzes verstößt. Er empfinde die jetzige Situation bei der Einberufung "nicht als ungerecht", so Struck. Von den Männern eines Jahrgangs blieben für den Wehrdienst nur etwa 35 Prozent übrig, weil der Rest verweigere oder aus gesundheitlichen Gründen nicht eingezogen werden könne. Zur Regelung, dass keine Verheirateten und keine Männer über 23 Jahren mehr eingezogen werden, sei ein Gesetzentwurf in Arbeit.

The issue of patriotism, long controversial in Germany, will be a central plank of this week's conservative pow-wow.

Analysts say the focus on these kinds of questions reflects their realization that internal struggles over questions of health reform and personnel have been damaging. They're now looking for common ground with which they can score points in the lead-up to the 2006 election.

"We will send a signal of unity at the party congress," CDU deputy leader Jürgen Rüttgers said last week. "The time for internal debates is over."

Fusty image

The party will attempt to chart a new course following the resignation in October of Merkel's deputy parliamentary group leader and finance expert, Friedrich Merz, who walked out in a huff after a bitter power struggle.

With the subsequent departure of the CSU's deputy parliamentary group leader Horst Seehofer over Merkel's health care reform scheme, the bloc is lacking high-profile figures who can sell its policies and connect with the public.

In an internal report called "Plea for a New Direction," parliamentary deputy Julia Klöckner, 31, complained the party had an image as "cold, technocratic and dull" and was turning off

city dwellers, families and young women.

"The Union does not embody their lifestyle, issues and does not speak their language," she wrote in the report, quoted in the news magazine Der Spiegel.

A survey this week by the independent polling institute Forsa confirmed her view, showing that the Christian Union bloc's support had dropped to 38 percent, far below the 50 percent it was garnering in March.

Schröder's Social Democrats reached a respectable 32 percent, up from their historic low struck this summer of 23 percent. Key state elections in Schleswig-Holstein in February and in North Rhine-Westphalia in May are fast approaching. Both of them will be seen as tests for both Schröder and Merkel and both politicians know there is little time to lose.

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