A string of political successes combined with her party's strong lead in opinion polls has boosted 49-year-old Angela Merkel's chances of becoming the opposition's Chancellor-candidate at the next election. But, asks Andrew McCathie, is Germany ready for its first woman political leader?
Angela Merkel: Could she become Germany's first woman Chancellor?
Germany's next national election might not be due until September 2006. But having stood aside during the last poll in 2002 to allow Edmund Stoiber, Bavarian Premier and leader of the CDU's associate party, the Christian Social Union, to be the Chancellor-candidate, 49-year-old Merkel seems to believe that now it is her turn to be the opposition's standard-bearer.
The praise heaped on Merkel by the nation's press, after the CDU scored a big victory in February's Hamburg state election and she successfully outgunned her male party rivals in the battle over the opposition's nomination for president, seems to indicate that the media also believes that the time has now arrived for the east German former university psychics teacher.
But the real question is whether Germans will vote for a woman as Chancellor? Even more to the point is whether west Germans will be prepared to vote for someone from east Germany?
After all, even in Germany today it is relatively rare to come across women in positions of power in the upper reaches of society.
Merkel emerged as CDU leader four years ago, essentially because she was one of the few senior party figures who had not been tainted by the party's donations scandal, which at the time opinion polls showed Germans considered the biggest political event in the nation's post-Second World War history.
Having taking over the party's leadership after Wolfgang Schaeuble was forced to resign as party chief in the wake of the donations affair, Merkel initially struggled to impose her authority on the male-dominated CDU and to gain the respect of the deeply conservative members of the Bavarian-based CSU.
*quote1*That has all started to change as the bleak state of the German economy and the introduction of unpopular economic and welfare reforms have sent the poll ratings for Schroeder and his Social Democratic Party to record lows.
Once one of Germany's most popular politicians, Schroeder has watched as his personal approval rating has sunk to an historic low of just 24 percent in more recent polls as Germany has battled to overcome high unemployment and to shake off three years of economic stagnation.
The polls show that if an election was held now the CDU and its CSU partner would be swept back into power with an absolute majority and consequently without having to bother about pesky negotiations to forge a coalition.
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Merkel's decision to distance herself from her chief political patron, former CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl, at the height of the donations scandal was taken as a sign of her political strength.
But whatever her political virtues, the problem for Merkel is that every time the media or her party handlers try to build her up as an Iron Lady, it is clear that she is no 'Eiserne Lady'.
Indeed, she does not exactly cut a dazzling political figure. As a public speaker she is less than thrilling — she often fails to deliver those ever-important one-line media grabs and somehow lacks the charm that political leaders like Schroeder can still manage to turn on.
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Moreover, no matter how US-presidential-style German elections (as is the case in most countries) have become, German electors vote for the party and not the Chancellor-candidate.
After emerging in the years following German unification as a minister under Kohl, Merkel also appears to have pushed into the background her East Germany past and successfully transformed herself into a national political leader.
But judging by the current political mood in Germany, if there is no real sign of improvement in the country's economy or labour market by 2006, almost any leader of the opposition is set to win the election.
In the last few years, as the sense of urgency about economic reform in Germany has grown, Merkel has also managed to steer her party towards a rigorous pro-business agenda, calling for big tax cuts, further moves to restructure the welfare state and a dramatic retreat from the nation's strict hire-and-fire laws.
However, despite her recent apparent political success, Merkel still has several major hurdles to overcome before she can safely claim that her party's nomination as Chancellor-candidate is in the bag. Even more problematic is then the series of steps involved in finally becoming Germany's first woman Chancellor.
Ironically, Merkel's chances of securing the opposition's Chancellor-candidate nomination could depend on the May ballot for the president of Germany.
The CDU-CSU along with the liberal Free Democrats enjoy a small majority on the 1,206 assembly of parliamentarians and personalities making the decision on the presidency.
*quote2*The three opposition parties have selected former International Monetary Fund chief Horst Koehler as their joint candidate after a push by CDU and CSU party barons for Schaeuble to become president failed.
Schroeder has countered by proposing a woman, Gesine Schwan, as the government's candidate. Schwan is a 60-year-old academic from west Berlin.
Bearing in the mind that voting for the presidency is conducted as a secret ballot and the intense rivalry between Merkel and the two other main contenders for the Chancellor-candidate nomination, Stoiber and Roland Koch, the premier of the state of Hesse, the outcome of the vote might not necessarily be a forgone conclusion.
Moreover, a decision to select a woman as president would rule a woman out of the race for the Chancellorship.
Many countries, including Britain, may have been prepared to elect their first woman prime minister when there was a woman as head of state.
However, almost every commentator in Germany believes that if Schwan somehow secured victory in the presidential ballot then this would effectively remove Merkel from the race to become the opposition's Chancellor-candidate.
It seems that a woman president and a woman Chancellor would not be something that an essentially conservative country like Germany is quite ready for.
What is more, both Stoiber and Koch are also very formidable opponents for Merkel. Indeed, as a mark of the tough battles ahead for Merkel, both Stoiber and Koch publicly criticised the opposition process (in other words Merkel's handling of the process) for selecting the opposition's candidate for the presidency.
Koch has never made any secret of his ambitions to become the opposition's Chancellor-candidate in 2006.
However, after fronting up the opposition during the 2002 election only to just miss out on becoming Chancellor, Stoiber has also made it clear that he wants another chance to take on Schroeder.
But for Merkel, the real challenge to her political ambitions to moving into the Chancellor's office in central Berlin might lie beyond the internal machinations of the opposition.
The election is more than two years away and despite the current weak state of the German economy, there is evidence that an economic recovery could take hold in the next 18 months, which may help to convince voters that Schroeder's reform agenda was right after all.
There is also one other factor. He may be down in the polls, but no-one should write off a skilful politician like Schroeder.
Subject: German News, Angela Merkel, Gerhard Schroeder, Roland Koch, Edmund Stoiber