Opposition Leader Merkel to Run for German Chancellor

Early national elections will be held in Germany in September. The conservative Christian Democratic Union on Monday nominated its leader Angela Merkel as a candidate for chancellor. Merkel has surprised some of her countrymen with her success in German politics.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now across the border in Germany, opponents of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are hoping for a political upheaval of their own. Schroeder's party recently suffered a local defeat, and he has called for an early election. And now the major opposition party has named its candidate to challenge him. If she wins, Angela Merkel would be the first woman to lead Germany. To find out how seriously Germans are taking the candidate, NPR's Emily Harris begins at a popular political satire show.

(Soundbite of political satire show)

Mr. REINER KRONERT(ph) (Comedian): (German spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

EMILY HARRIS reporting:

Comedian Reiner Kronert entertains a crowd in Cologne with his imitations of male German politicians. As any satirist, he changes his voice and hand gestures for each one. When it's time to poke fun at Angela Merkel, though, he first steps behind a curtain and comes back out in a blonde, dowdy, bowl-cut wig.

(Soundbite of crowd laughter)

HARRIS: He hunches his shoulder a bit and adds a grim frown. This is the deadly serious woman with the bad haircut that Germans have loved to make fun of since Merkel entered national politics after the reunification of East and West Germany in 1991. But comedian Kronert says since Merkel's Christian Democratic party began winning state elections and it became clear she'd be a serious contender for chancellor, the mood of his audiences have changed.

Mr. KRONERT: (Through Translator) A few months ago, she was underestimated by the audience. She was laughed at. People said, `She doesn't have a chance.' Now I can see a certain earnestness towards her and what she says. They don't want just to laugh about her, but they also want to listen. There's a lot of interest in her.

HARRIS: People attending this show have a range of opinions about Merkel. `As slippery as an eel,' says one woman. `A clown,' says one man. Edith Coverlink(ph), a teacher from just outside Cologne, says Merkel lacks a lot in personality, but will probably get her vote.

Ms. EDITH COVERLINK (Teacher): She's not funny. Not at all. And she doesn't seem to be a very feminine person. But I think it isn't necessary for a woman to be very charming. It's necessary to have the possibility to be a good politician.

HARRIS: Angela Merkel was born in Hamburg in 1954 and moved as an infant to Communist East Germany. Her father, a Protestant pastor, believed the East offered a better social model than the West. Being from a religious family was a mark against young Merkel, but she wasn't an outcast. She joined the Communist government's youth groups and excelled in math, physics and Russian language competitions. Merkel later worked as a physicist, and as the Berlin Wall fell, she stumbled into opposition politics. Jacquelyn Boisin(ph), a biographer of Merkel, says Merkel's background puts her at odds with the party she now leads.

Ms. JACQUELYN BOISIN (Biographer): She did not grow up in the Christian Democratic Party. She did not study politics. She formed her own rules, how to deal with politics, how to behave, how to use friends and how to get rid of friends or how to get rid of enemies even.

HARRIS: Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl launched Merkel's national political career when he chose her as a minister in Germany's first post-unification government. Kohl called her `the girl,' a nickname that stuck despite her successes. When Kohl later became embroiled in financial scandal, Merkel didn't hesitate to condemn him publicly. More recently, she fought with her party's economic specialist who resigned the post. But Monday, she won the nomination as a chancellor candidate unanimously.

Unidentified Man: (German spoken)

(Soundbite of applause and cheers)

HARRIS: Merkel laid out the campaign's main issues to a crowd at the Christian Democratic Union's headquarters.

Ms. ANGELA MERKEL (Political Candidate): (German spoken)

HARRIS: `The lowest economic growth of all 25 member states of the European Union, debts as high as never before in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, people fearing for their pensions, a dramatic increase of poverty in our country, the feeling of two-class health care, but above all the depressing number of 5 million registered unemployed.'

Merkel wants to push through tax and health care changes similar to what Schroeder has been trying to do. Internationally, should Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union take office, there would likely be an improvement in Germany's relationship with Washington. Very unlike Schroeder, her party endorsed the Bush administration's arguments for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. That could pose a campaign problem. But many German voters are mainly focused on the economy and, more than anything, just want a change.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

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