If Elected, Merkel Would Be First Female Chancellor

Germany holds general elections this weekend. If Angela Merkel becomes Germany's next chancellor, she will be the first woman in history to hold that post. Some say this is a watershed moment for women in German society. But others say Merkel has failed to champion women's issues.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to turn now to the election in Germany, which could have its first ever woman chancellor after this Sunday's voting. Angela Merkel, the leader of opposition Christian Democrats, is ahead of the current chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder ,in the polls, but the gap is closing between the two candidates, and Merkel's critics say she is not doing enough to connect with German voters. NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Berlin.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Angela Merkel walks into the crowded banquet hall of a four-star Berlin hotel, dressed smartly in a grey pantsuit. A herd of photographers rush to get their shots of the candidate, who begrudgingly appeases them with a reserved smile. She takes a seat on the stage next to a leggy blond in a black cocktail dress who will lead the evening's discussions. It's to be an informal Q&A, less about Angela Merkel the politician and more about Angela Merkel the woman. But the mostly female audience only gets a dry explanation from Merkel about how she's more comfortable reading physics books than giving political speeches, as the interviewer tries to redirect the conversation.

(Soundbite from press conference of two women talking over each other in a foreign language)

MARTIN: Event organizers say the evening was an attempt to reveal a softer side of the CDU's candidate for chancellor, Angela Merkel, and to combat criticisms that she's perfectly distanced herself from women's issues, things like more funding for child care and equal job opportunities for women. Thirty-three-year-old Sonja Mueller is one of the event organizers and a supporter of the CDU.

Ms. SONJA MUELLER (Event Organizer): The fact that she's the first female chancellor candidate in Germany means more to women than any policy or whatever could ever do, because we see, she can do it, so why can't we do it?

Unidentified Woman #1: That's just too cool. She's cool.

MARTIN: But not everyone in the crowd left with such a casually fond feeling for Frau Merkel. Imina Janicek(ph) is a 33-year-old finance manager from Hamburg. She says Merkel has helped break the mold of women's roles in German society. She's been married twice, has no children and had a successful career as a physicist before entering politics. But Janicek says this also makes it difficult for many women to relate to her.

Ms. IMINA JANICEK (Finance Manager): She's not the typical woman or what a lot of women, I think, are missing or feeling or wanting to have, the whole emotional side. She can walk that way quite effectively.

MARTIN: Even within her own party, Merkel is considered a bit of an outsider. The 51-year-old is a Protestant woman from the east. Her party, the CDU, is composed largely of Catholic men from the west. She rose to power within the CDU with the help of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, not because of any leadership qualities but because after unification, he needed an eastern woman on his Cabinet. Fourteen years later, Merkel is the CDU's choice for chancellor. She's waged a campaign not on personality but on voters' growing discontent with the status quo.

(Soundbite of German broadcast)

MARTIN: During a televised town hall meeting, Merkel blamed the SPD for what most believe is the number-one problem in Germany.

Ms. ANGELA MERKEL (CDU Candidate for Chancellor): (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: `We have five million people unemployed in Germany,' she says, `and last year, we were losing 1,000 jobs every day, and that's my problem, too.' Merkel's plan to fix the economy rests on a proposal to increase the value-added tax by 2 percent and to ease restrictions on companies when they hire and fire workers. In foreign policy, she wants to strengthen ties with the United States and is also against making Turkey a member of the European Union. But according to Christoph Schultz(ph), a political correspondent for the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, it's Merkel's economic reforms that will have the most direct effect on voters. And Schultz says in order to implement her reforms, Merkel's got to do more than get the anti-SPD vote. She's got to relate to voters on a personal level, something that's been second nature to the current chancellor.

Mr. CHRISTOPH SCHULTZ (Der Spiegel): I mean, with Schroeder, you just have the feeling that you know him. He has a dog, he has some hobbies. You know, with Merkel, you do not know anything. You know, there is no--whether she likes to drink more wine or more beer. Because she's so reluctant to open herself up to these kinds of little, little private stories, a German could say the public will never get warm with her.

MARTIN: If the CDU wins on September 18th, analysts say it's because voters are desperate for change in Germany, even if they're not sure just who the woman is who promises to bring it. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

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