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Germany

Germany's Opposition Leader Receives Strong Party Endorsement

Germany's most powerful woman in politics, Angela Merkel, accuses Gerhard Schröder's government of blatant lies as her Christian Democratic Union looks to reinvent itself.

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Angela Merkel -- a woman on top

Monday saw Germany's main opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union, hunker down for its one-day party conference in the northern city of Hanover. Actually, make that one-person conference, for although the party base was asked to vote in the CDU's new leadership and the party presidium, the main focus of interest was rather more parochial than that.

All eyes were on Angela Merkel, whose formal re-election with 93.7 percent of the vote as party leader by the 1,000 delegates was a foregone conclusion. Never one for mincing her words, Merkel in her address accused Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democratic-led government of lying to voters.

"This government has blatantly and cold-bloodedly lied into the faces of the German people. They have been deceived like never before," she said. Continuing in a similar vein she said that Germany had reached a "post-war lowpoint" economically, socially and morally. The country's future, she warned, was at stake.

Strong words from a strong-willed woman. Having unceremoniously muscled and bustled her way past potential post-election stumbling blocks such as Friedrich Merz, the former parliamentary group chairman, Merkel is shaping up to turn the party into her platform from where she can launch her bid to become chancellor candidate.

Merkel seen as party saviour

For there are many within the CDU who overtly opine that the feisty 48-year-old from the eastern German state of Brandenburg, would indeed have made a better chancellor candidate than Edmund Stoiber, leader of the CDU's smaller conservative sister party, the Christian Social Union.

The most vociferous in the pro-Merkel camp say that her eastern roots would have guaranteed the party a high percentage of votes from women in eastern Germany, an area which Stoiber dramatically failed to tap into at all.

CDU Parteitag in Hannover, Angela Merkel, Parteivorsitzende spricht

Angela Merkel

Can Merkel be the CDU's saviour? Observers say that the party is still struggling to come to terms with its narrow election defeat two months ago and needs a strong, dominating figure to position it as a modern, centrist party, with emphasis on Christian and family values.

Fast rise to the top

Merkel seems better-placed than anyone to assume that mantle. The daughter of a pastor, she got her first taste of politics working for an eastern German organization under the aegis of the Protestant Church just prior to reunification.

She joined the CDU in 1990 and quickly rose through the ranks impressing her political allies and foes alike with her unassuming, yet determined manner. She quickly caught the attention of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl who took her under his guiding wing and, appointed her minister of women and youth affairs in 1991. She worked her way through various political posts, including a stint as environment minister, honing her political instinct.

After the CDU was dumped from power in 1998, she became the chief party whip, realigning the party in her pet competencies of family, education and social policies. Not long afterward, she took advantage of the illegal donations scandal surrounding Kohl and then party chairman Wolfgang Schäuble to demand a much-publicized break with the past, a barely veiled barb at CDU party grandees such as Kohl and Schäuble. It is a sign of her political savvy that she has personally pushed for Schäuble's appointment as a co-chairman and the party's spokesman on foreign and European affairs.

The party base thanked her for it and helped her become the first ever woman in German politics to lead a party. Although political commentators have in the past criticized her leadership style as being too timid and hesitant, she is increasingly proving her detractors wrong that she is too thin-skinned for the job.

New strategies

For now, it's all about strategies and while many in the CDU are clamoring for a long-term realignment of the party, her focus is clearly on the upcoming state elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony next year. Merkel wants to turn the polls into a plebiscite on Schröder's dismal record so far. With unemployment spiralling out of control, a mounting public debt and imminent tax hikes, opinion polls show that Merkel and her party would win if the federal election were held this week.

Merkel knows her party must take advantage of the present disgruntled state of the electorate to reposition the CDU as a functioning and united opposition party and a future ruling party.

But Merkel will no doubt be looking ahead, indeed a special party conference is already being lined up for next year which will focus on the CDU's long-term strategy. Her own strategy right now has to be to survive a much-predicted onslaught on her leadership qualities by Roland Koch, premier of the state of Hesse and her main challenger to a chancellor candidacy.

If she passes that test, observers say she has a real chance of leading the party successfully through a programmatic readjustment making it a viable and attractive alternative to the Social Democratic Party.

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