German right names Merkel to challenge Schröder in early poll

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The Independent Online

Angela Merkel is firmly in the running to become Germany's first female chancellor after opposition conservatives elected her as their candidate to challenge Gerhard Schröder in elections scheduled for the autumn.

Mrs Merkel, 50, leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), was chosen by leaders of her own party and its sister organisation, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, by unanimous vote at the conservative party headquarters in Berlin.

Smiling broadly before television cameras afterwards, Mrs Merkel welcomed the prospect of a general election, expected in September, and said she was committed to reducing the country's crippling unemployment burden. "We need an agenda for jobs," she said. "We are dominated by the depressing figure of five million unemployed. We need to be faster, more flexible and better in order to compete."

Mrs Merkel's election as candidate came after her party's landslide victory in elections in the former leftwing stronghold of North Rhine Westphalia on 22 May, which ended 39 years of Social Democrat rule in the state. The Social Democrats' humiliating defeat, taken as a resounding vote of no-confidence in Chancellor Schröder's government, prompted Mr Schröder to call for a general election to be brought forward by a year. Mr Schröder plans to hold a confidence vote in parliament by 1 July - the first step in forcing early elections.

Opinion polls have suggested that Mrs Merkel's conservatives would poll 45 per cent of the vote, compared with 30 per cent for the Social Democrats. However, a majority of Germans said they would prefer Mr Schröder to remain Chancellor if given the choice between candidates.

Mrs Merkel has been billed as Germany's Margaret Thatcher, but most commentators have suggested that her reform programme would be far less radical than that introduced by her British counterpart.

Her election marked the end of decades of scepticism about the role of women in politics that once dominated German conservative circles. In Germany's last general election in 2002, Mrs Merkel was already party leader, but was prevented from running for the chancellorship and had to hand the job to Edmund Stoiber, the veteran Bavarian Prime Minister.

Yesterday Mr Stoiber demonstrated that the party had finally dropped its qualms by declaring his unequivocal backing for Mrs Merkel before the vote on her candidacy was taken. "Mrs Merkel has the complete confidence and backing of all German conservatives," Mr Stoiber said.

Born in Hamburg, Mrs Merkel grew up in a rural backwater in the former Communist East Germany, where her father worked as a minister in the Protestant church. In her youth, Mrs Merkel was a member of the Communist Free German Youth movement and won party awards for her academic brilliance. East Germany's Stasi secret police tried to recruit her as a spy while she was a student of physics. Mrs Merkel managed to dissuade them by declaring she was an "uncontrollable chatterbox".

Mrs Merkel entered politics as a press spokeswoman for East Germany's first democratically elected government in 1990. She became a protégé of Germany's "Reunification Chancellor", Helmut Kohl. She succeeded him as party leader after a slush fund scandal in 2000, as the CDU sought a break with its past.