Angela Merkel: A tenacious contender

My profile of chancellor Merkel a few days after she had been named as the CDU candidate to take on Chancellor Schröder in 2005. 

Financial Times

Woman in the News

Angela Merkel is unique in German politics. Not only does the chairwoman of the opposition Christian Democrats stand a good chance of becoming Germany's first female and first east German chancellor. She also breaks the mould among those who have reached the pinnacle of German political life. Mrs Merkel, who on Monday will be named opposition candidate to take on Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in an early election this autumn, lacks the charisma of her opponent.

She is not a rousing public speaker or a seasoned politician. Instead, she is a serious-minded, unflappable strategist with a girlish smile who prefers to draw on her training as a physicist to use rational argument to win over voters. This straightforward style can be disarming. In a recent meeting with reporters she could not immediately recall details of a European Union directive - a human mistake for a busy party leader that she found unproblematic, but one that most senior politicians would be scared to admit. "She is not at all vain," says Arnold Vaatz, a fellow east German CDU legislator.

Mrs Merkel is also unusual as a woman politician, says Annette Schavan, a CDU regional minister and close Merkel ally. "She doesn't fit the typical public image of a successful woman," she says, as she neither focuses on "soft" issues such as health or education nor is seen as a domineering "power-Frau". Being unique has not held her back.

She will be 51 at the federal election in September, making her, if she wins, Germany's youngest postwar chancellor. A Protestant pastor's daughter who spent the first 35 years of her life under east German communism, she can claim much of the credit for turning Germany's political map from Social Democrat red to CDU black. She has notched up 10 regional election victories since becoming party leader in 2000, including the win last Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia that led Mr Schröder to call an early federal election.

She has steered the CDU out of the slush-fund scandal of the late 1990s and returned it to its place as the country's most popular party. In the process, she has won many internal battles in the largely west German, Catholic, male-dominated CDU, startling her more experienced rivals with better arguments and more refined political manoeuvres. Luck has played a role. In 2000 the CDU grandees bidding for the party leadership were tainted by the slush-fund scandal. And this week the surprise election announcement left the CDU with little choice but to choose her, despite continued infighting. Yet it is the way she has honed her intellect and political skills that is the real explanation for her rise to power.

Born in Hamburg in 1954, her family moved shortly afterwards to Brandenburg, in the communist east, where her father took over a parish. She studied physics in Leipzig, gained a doctorate in quantum chemistry in east Berlin (where she learnt near-perfect English from science books), before in the late 1980s joining the democratic movement. She was quickly noticed by the CDU, entered parliament in December 1990, and a month later was picked by then-chancellor Helmut Kohl as family minister. She became environment minister in 1994 and CDU general secretary in 1998.

She sealed the CDU leadership in part with a controversial newspaper article in 1999 in which she said the party had to learn to do without its "old warhorse", a clear reference to Mr Kohl. Hugo Müller-Vogg, author of a book-length interview with Mrs Merkel, says that she quickly worked out how to capitalise on her bonus under Mr Kohl of being a woman and an easterner, but that she remains convinced that her gender is of secondary importance.

"I worked hard [under Kohl], I received nothing for free," she told the journalist. She finds the frequent comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, the former British conservative prime minister, tiresome. "I have no role model," she told the Financial Times in 2003. Yet she continues to stand out: she is approachable in private and has fostered a support network within her party - she is a mobile phone addict and likes to send text messages during meetings - but is also known as being cautious, even mistrusting, towards those outside her circle.

She marked her 50th birthday last year not with an extravagant party but by organising a seminar on the workings of the brain. "She is a very concentrated person, and hates it when others appear confused or superficial," a close colleague says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Germans say she is cold - an unfair and sexist view, says Ms Schavan. "She is emotionally controlled, but has had to be to get this far."

Mr Müller-Vogg sees her core political convictions "as having evolved from her east German past". She values political freedoms (she swam against the German tide by supporting Washington on the Iraq war) and has moved the CDU nearer to liberal market economics than under Mr Kohl. Yet her greatest challenge undoubtedly lies in the future. She lags behind the chancellor, a polished performer and savvy tactician, in popularity surveys, and Mr Schröder this week said the campaign would boil down to a battle between him and her.

Aides say that to win that fight Mrs Merkel knows she will have to compromise on her determination to retain a private life. She is becoming more open about being childless and a divorcee, and about her second marriage, to Joachim Sauer, a Berlin chemistry professor.

Ultimately, according to Laurenz Meyer, CDU general secretary from 2000 to 2004, his leader's political competence will convince voters. "She can deal very effectively with complex issues, and as a scientist she argues rationally, which is a rather rare, helpful approach." When a German journalist asked Mrs Merkel whether she would describe herself as "tough", she replied that "tenacious" would be more accurate.

Mrs Merkel knows the huge challenges facing Germany, once Europe's powerhouse but now in need of structural reforms. If she gains the keys to Mr Schröder's chancellery, tenacity will certainly be required.