BERLIN — Female, eastern, and young, Angela Merkel is the most unlikely personification of the conservative political party she is trying to save.
For decades the political home of West Germany's middle class, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is expected to elect Dr. Merkel to the post of chairwoman today at a party convention in Essen.
After a quarter century under the shadow of Helmut Kohl - the CDU patriarch disgraced in a party-financing scandal - Christian Democrats are placing their hopes in a woman who just a decade ago was an unknown physicist and academic in Communist East Germany.
"Merkel isn't burdened with the past," says Ute Schmidt, a CDU expert at the Hannah Arendt Institute in Dresden. "She is bringing a new form of communication to the CDU. She is showing more openness and none of the arrogance. I think her own self-image will change the party."
With her no-nonsense attitude and decidedly nonglamorous appearance, Merkel has become one of Germany's most popular politicians. Yet her positions on many issues are largely unfocused. More right-wing conservatives grumble that she belongs to the party's liberal wing. Others are frustrated that her views on foreign policy are virtually unknown.
With her ascent to lead the opposition CDU, the generational change of Germany's political elite is complete. With his defeat of Mr. Kohl in 1998 elections, Social Democrat Gerhard Schrder became the first chancellor not to have personal memories of World War II.
The weekly Der Spiegel commented that Merkel will come as a "culture shock" to the party. As chancellor, Kohl helped lay out a political career for Merkel, who entered public life only after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Paternalistically calling her "das Mdchen" (the girl), Kohl made Merkel family minister and later environment minister in his Cabinet. In 1998, she became secretary-general of the CDU.
Yet in December, when Kohl obstinately refused to reveal the donors of illegal contributions he had squirreled away in secret bank accounts for years, Merkel was the first to break with him publicly. "She showed the direction, and the party followed her. It was decisive that Merkel appeared human and credible, thereby winning over the trust of the party members," says Gnter Nooke, a deputy chair of the CDU parliamentary group.
Unable to extricate himself from the web of scandal allegations, Kohl's right-hand man, Wolfgang Schuble, surrendered the CDU chair in February. At the end of March, the party leadership unanimously nominated Merkel as his successor.
Her climb was anything but a calculated career move, however. "It wasn't a strategic decision to take a woman and an easterner," says Ulrich von Alemann, a political scientist at the University of Dsseldorf. "It simply happened because she was there - and played her role extraordinarily well."
One of Merkel's main challenges will be to win back the political center from Mr. Schrder's Social Democrats. The chancellor has succeeded in winning the backing of big business, a traditional CDU ally, for his reform projects. Floundering for ideas, the Christian Democrats resorted in state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia to the xenophobic campaign slogan "education instead of immigration."
At the same time, the financial scandals have left the CDU as much as $50 million in debt.
"The problem is that too many people think that the crisis is over now and that we can continue as before," warns Mr. Nooke. He says Merkel must now create internal party structures that will prevent a repetition of Kohl's shady dealings.
Nobody in the CDU is prepared to mention Merkel as a candidate for chancellor in 2002 federal elections. After all, says Mr. Alemann, the CDU is only now regaining strength and political support. "In the present situation, I rather doubt that she would be able to beat Chancellor Schrder."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society