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Germany

Top Female Academic Aims for Presidency

Stirring faint hope that Germany might yet get its first female president, Gesine Schwan, Schröder's presidential candidate, has surprisingly caught up with opposition-backed Horst Köhler in opinion polls.

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Smart and tough as nails

When 60-year-old Gesine Schwan was plucked from her job as president of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an der Oder earlier this year by the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens and sent into the presidential race, the move was considered to be merely symbolic.

Since the joint parliamentary assembly that will elect Germany's next president on May 23 is controlled by the opposition conservatives and liberals, Schwan was thought to have no chance of beating opposition candidate Horst Köhler, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Schwan woos with intelligence

But, less than two months later, the eloquent Schwan, with her trademark mop of blond curls, has proven to be a candidate to reckon with.

A rash of opinion polls published this week by diverse polling institutes concluded that it would be a neck-and-neck race between Schwan and Köhler if the Germans directly elected their president. One poll carried out by the Emnid Institute for the daily Die Welt said 40 percent of the people questioned would vote for Schwan, while 38 percent were for Köhler.

Schwan would have to pick up 19 votes from the opposition if she were to win on Sunday -- a near impossible feat. Still, the about-turn in opinion polls has surprised pundits who attribute it to her combination of intelligence, media savvy, and formidable verbal skills which she has demonstrated in numerous television appearances.

Schwan has also untiringly crisscrossed the country in recent months to give campaign speeches in which she consistently emphasized her intention to focus on education, research, and family affairs if chosen to succeed President Johannes Rau.

Long-running ties to Poland

Born in Berlin on May 22, 1943, Schwan grew up in a socially-committed family that was part of the resistance movement against the Nazis and later became involved in Polish-German reconciliation after the war.

Schwan studied Romance languages, history, philosophy and political science in Berlin and Freiburg. As a student, she spent much time in Warsaw and Krakow and developed contacts to several Polish dissidents who today work as high-ranking politicians.

She joined the Social Democratic Party in 1972 and proved to be a passionate debater who propagated détente towards communist regimes as a means of working towards democratization. She was appointed director of the Viadrina European University on the German-Polish border in 1999, a post that was considered ideal given her contribution to German-Polish relations.

Finding favor among intellectuals

Though the German president's role is largely limited to ceremonial state visits, signing laws and being a kind of moral conscience for society, Schwan's forceful personality and views are already beginning to find resonance among Germans.

This week, a broad grouping of artists, intellectuals, scientists and politicians published a full-page advertisement in a German daily, supporting Schwan's candidacy. "Our broad alliance is not just in favor of a woman becoming the president, we're also supporting Gesine Schwan as a highly-qualified candidate who is seen by the majority of Germans as the better federal president," well-known artist Klaus Staeck, one of the campaign's initiators, told news agency DPA.

A widowed mother of two, Schwan has also shrewdly played her card as a tough female politician. "I have a lot of experience as a woman caught between a job and a family. I understand power as a grouping of different interests," Schwan has said.

She's also taken a jibe at rival Köhler's status by hinting that he was only an expert when it came to economics, given his IMF background. "Politics must be more than economics," Schwan said.

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