Merkel fights for political survival
22 October 2004 , BERLIN - Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl had a saying to explain his long-running success in politics: "People have been underestimating me all of my life - and I've made a very good living out of it." The same may turn out to be true for the current leader of his Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel, whom Kohl plucked from obscurity in eastern Germany after presiding over the 1990 German reunification. Merkel has had a meteoric rise and on the way she's been mocked for ev
22 October 2004
BERLIN - Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl had a saying to explain his long-running success in politics: "People have been underestimating me all of my life - and I've made a very good living out of it."
The same may turn out to be true for the current leader of his Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel, whom Kohl plucked from obscurity in eastern Germany after presiding over the 1990 German reunification.
Merkel has had a meteoric rise and on the way she's been mocked for everything from frumpy clothes and a dour hairstyle to her downturned mouth which one newspaper unkindly said makes her look like a basset hound.
Powerbrokers in the still male-dominated CDU can't seem to get over the fact that a woman had to be made leader to save the party from a slush-fund scandal which engulfed Kohl and members of the old guard in 2000.
"She's an east German ... she's got no children, she's divorced and married again," said the news magazine Der Spiegel listing the litany of complaints some conservatives raise over their own leader.
But Merkel, who is 50, is also tough as nails.
From her life as a pastor's daughter in communist East Germany she learned to trust nobody, said the newspaper Die Welt. And from her mentor Kohl, Merkel learned to wield the political knife and eliminate anybody who threatens her power, the paper added.
This explains part of Merkel's current crisis stemming from an embarrassing climbdown over demands for a petition aimed at keeping Turkey out of the European Union - which she dropped like a hot potato after winning neo-Nazi cheers - and the political coup de grace delivered last week to one of her arch-enemies in the CDU, Friedrich Merz.
Merz was dispatched with a one-two punch from Merkel: In 2002 she forced Merz to surrender his post as parliamentary faction leader. This was followed by moves to isolate Merz and undermine him in his new post as finance policy spokesman.
Last week a bitter Merz announced he was standing down.
"She was merciless - and that impressed many people," said an influential Berlin official with close ties to Merkel, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
But revenge came swiftly from a senior CDU leader, Wolfgang Schaueble, who Merkel then asked to replace Merz.
The wily Schaeuble, who has never forgotten how Merkel blocked his bids to become German state president and mayor of Berlin, asked for time to consider and then dropped a bombshell. He publicly announced he wouldn't take the post.
This slap in the face for Merkel fuelled warnings from CDU premier of eastern Thuringia state, Dieter Althaus, that a party coup, led by powerful western German CDU barons, might be aimed at toppling her.
The allegation drew a furious denial from western CDU leaders especially the ambitious Prime Minister of Lower Saxony state, Christian Wulff, who some say is banking on a CDU defeat in Germany's next general election due in 2006 so he can be chancellor candidate in 2010.
Jousting over who will challenge Schroeder in 2006 from the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is one reason the opposition has lost its commanding lead in the polls over German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD).
Last winter the CDU/CSU had 50 percent while the Chancellor's SPD crashed to record lows of just over 20 percent. But the latest Forsa Agency poll gives Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) 33 percent, compared with 38 percent for the (CDU/CSU).
Merkel believes it's her right to be the next chancellor candidate but Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber, who was narrowly defeated by Schroeder in 2002, clearly wants revenge. Also keen to run is the CDU premier of Hesse state, Roland Koch.
"Stoiber won't be candidate. Merkel is putting out the message he's too abrasive and can't win eastern German voters but that she can deliver votes in western Germany even if they don't love her," said the Berlin official.
Another reason for slumping CDU/CSU polls, said the weekly Die Zeit, is that Merkel demands further reform of Germany's creaking social welfare system, labour laws and healthcare system.
This contrasts with Chancellor Schroeder, who after ramming through a series of more limited reforms, is now in the more comfy position of telling voters enough is enough, said Die Zeit.
Despite these difficulties, leading analysts are convinced that Merkel will stay in power at the CDU's helm.
One of Germany's most influential political columnists, Mainhardt Graf Nayhauss who writes for Bild, says there is noboby in the CDU with the stature - let alone courage - to challenge Merkel at the party's congress this December.
The newspaper Die Zeit comes to the same conclusion and argues that the CDU/CSU's poll lows will recover this winter as unemployment soars to five million jobless and the weakening economy drags down Schroeder.
"Angela Merkel will survive the crisis and be the Chancellor candidate," predicts Die Zeit.
Subject: German news