German opposition leader Angela Merkel is in Washington for top-level meetings with Bush administration officials aimed at showing not all Germans think the way that the country's chancellor does.
Merkel says Gerhard Schröder was wrong to rule out force against Iraq.
Angela Merkel is making a name for herself -- this time outside of Germany. Until this week, the chairwoman of the opposition Christian Democratic Union and its parliamentary group in the Bundestag was largely unknown in foreign political circles.
But a widely read commentary in the Washington Post published under the headline, "Schröder Doesn’t Speak for All Germans," along with a whirlwind diplomatic tour of some of the U.S. capital's most-important addresses, has done much to raise her profile. This week, Merkel has met top government representatives in Washington, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Stabbing German peace policies in the back?
Far across the Atlantic, the 48-year-old has come under withering criticism from leaders of the governing Social Democratic and Green parties, who have accused her of undermining Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s anti-war policy on Iraq. “Once again she is stabbing German peace policies in the back abroad,” Social Democrat Secretary General Olaf Scholz said. The Associated Press even described her visit as "unusually high-profile for a foreign opposition leader."
While Germany favors allowing United Nations weapons inspectors more time and a greater scope to continue their search for weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s country, Merkel said in Washington that she believes the United States is on the right track in its efforts to work toward passage of a second U.N. Security Council resolution legitimizing a military offensive against Iraq.
Straight to the top
After a meteoric rise to the top, Merkel is well-versed in taking advantage of her opponents’ weaknesses, and many view her as the first woman in Germany with a serious shot of one day leading the country.
The pastor’s daughter and former physicist from the eastern German state of Brandenburg first got into politics working for an East German organization under the aegis of the Protestant Church in late 1989, shortly before German reunification.
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl
After joining the Christian Democratic Union in 1990, she quickly worked her way up through the party apparatus. In the first federal election following reunification, Merkel beat out two West German opponents to win a parliamentary seat in an eastern German constituency in December 1990. Chancellor Helmut Kohl quickly took her under his wing.
Kohl named her to the cabinet post of minister for women and youth affairs the following month. Merkel worked her way through various political posts, including a stint as environment minister, honing her political instinct along the way.
The fact that Merkel -- as a woman, an east German and a Protestant -- made a career in the CDU was considered a breakthrough in a traditional party with strong Catholic roots and a milestone for German women.
Out of the shadows
Ironically, Merkel profited again when the reins of power moved to Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats in the 1998 election. She was elected secretary general of the CDU and taxed with the responsibility of raising her party out of the immense shadow of Helmut Kohl -- the man who had first plucked her from obscurity.
Here, she distinguished herself by soon taking advantage of the slush fund campaign finance scandal surrounding Kohl and then party chairman Wolfgang Schäuble -- calling for a clean break with the past.
While the CDU had lost credibility among the electorate because of the scandal, Merkel’s insistence that party leaders be thoroughly investigated boosted the party’s standing and her own. She was rewarded by being elected the first woman ever to lead the Christian Democrats in 2000.
The shadow candidate
As the party's chairwoman, Merkel tried to re-orient the CDU, focusing on the issues of European integration, globalization, immigration, family and education, while steering toward a centrist political ground. After a bitter contest to become the CDU's 2002 candidate for chancellor, Merkel bowed out of the race a year ago, leaving that slot open for Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber, who leads the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Political observers said Merkel was too thin-skinned, timid and hesitant to deliver her party a victory.
Though the CDU made significant gains in parliament over the previous election, Schröder was narrowly re-elected Sept. 22. Merkel then adroitly side-stepped inner-party opponent Friedrich Merz and assumed his position as leader of the parliamentary group -- a position that made her the Bundestag's minority leader. At a CDU party conference in November, she was confirmed as party chairwoman, receiving 93.7 percent of delegates votes.
Merkel passed her next political test with flying colors, too, shedding any remaining doubt about her leadership qualities. The CDU devastated Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats in important state elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony on Feb. 2.
First female chancellor?
In Washington on Monday, Merkel harshly criticized the German government for its pacifist position in the Iraq conflict, as well as the deterioration in German-American relations that has accompanied it. Although protocol doesn’t allow a foreign opposition politician to meet with a U.S. president, the White House has rolled out what the German media is describing as a "pink carpet" for Merkel -- a status that has opened up doors to the Cheneys and Rices of Washington.