Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany's opposition Christian Democrats, has officially been chosen as the conservative challenger to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in early elections in the fall.
She has high hopes for Germany's upcoming early elections
Germany's opposition conservatives on Monday named Angela Merkel as their candidate to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in an expected autumn election that could produce the country's first woman leader.
Members of Merkel's CDU party and its Bavarian sister organization, the Christian Social Union (CSU) nominated the 50-year-old to run for Germany's head of government.
Edmund Stoiber, state premier for Bavaria and chancellor candidate in 2002, supports Merkel
The last possible obstacle to her nomination fell when CSU leader Edmund Stoiber backed her at a meeting of the parties' top officials.
Stoiber had beaten off a challenge from Merkel to be the opposition candidate at the 2002 general election, but lost that vote to Schröder who was re-elected for a second term as chancellor.
Standing alongside Merkel, Stoiber told a gathering of party workers and the media that her nomination had been unanimous and she had "the full mandate and the full support of the CSU and CDU."
"I am going to do everything I can to help you become Germany's first woman chancellor," Stoiber said. A leading CSU official, Michael Glos, said on Monday that Stoiber would take up a "leading role alongside Merkel."
Unemployment a priority
To the sound of rapturous applause, Merkel said her priority would be to reduce German unemployment, which is hovering around the five million mark.
Schröder and Merkel to likely face off in September
"Germany no longer needs an Agenda 2010, it needs an Agenda for Work," she said, referring to Schröder's largely unpopular program of economic reforms.
She said the CDU would adopt its election program at a party conference in Dortmund on August 28, while the CSU would do the same in early September, possibly just two weeks before the election.
The Christian Democrats are widely expected to win, according to opinion polls, as Merkel faces off against the beleaguered Social Democratic leader who has seen his popularity plummet in the face of a stagnant economy and dissatisfaction over the direction of the country.
The 50-year-old divorced daughter of a Protestant pastor was born in Hamburg in what was then West Germany but grew up in communist East Germany.
Merkel was a latecomer to politics, working as a physicist in East Berlin before joining a pro-democracy group in 1989. She later become a spokeswoman for East Germany's first and only democratically elected leader, Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere. She joined the Christian Democrats in August 1990, becoming a member of parliament later that year.
She became leader of the party of former chancellor Helmut Kohl in 2000 and gradually won her colleagues' respect, even though the childless divorcee defies the stereotype of the male-dominated Christian Democrats.
The Christian Democrat leader of the state of Saxony-Anhalt, Wolfgang Böhmer, told German radio that having a woman candidate for chancellor was a "a normal development, which is in tune with the times."
Former Prime Minister Lady Margaret Thatcher
Merkel has inevitably been compared to Margaret Thatcher (photo), Britain's first and only female prime minister, but her politics are less radical than the free-market model advocated by the "Iron Lady."
Merkel's nomination came after she moved ahead of Schröder in opinion polls for the first time.
Although generally seen as less charismatic than the chancellor, she gained the support of 50 percent of respondents in poll for German state TV released on Friday, compared with 44 percent for Schröder.
However the German leader is not directly elected by the voters, but by members of parliament after a general election.
Schröder surprised the country with his call for an early election after his Social Democratic Party (SPD) was heavily defeated by the CDU in a state election in North Rhine-Westphalia this month. The latest poll showed that support for the SPD had slumped to 27 percent against 52 percent for the Christian Democrats.
Schröder has called for a vote of confidence in parliament for July 1 in the first step to triggering early elections.