The chances of the Conservative opposition leader Angela Merkel becoming Germany's first woman chancellor suffered a setback yesterday after her party re-elected her with a substantially reduced majority that cast doubt on her being selected as the party's front-runner for the country's 2006 elections.
More than 1,000 delegates at a Christian Democrat (CDU) party conference in Düsseldorf re-elected the east German Mrs Merkel with only 88.4 per cent of the vote compared to the 93.7 per cent she got at a key party conference two years ago.
The surprise result showed 110 delegates had voted against her, contradicting earlier conservative claims that 50-year-old Mrs Merkel was firmly in line to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Germany's 2006 general election.
One senior CDU source was quoted as saying: "The field is wide open and we are now unlikely to make a decision about who will be front-runner until early 2006."
Mrs Merkel insisted yesterday that after months of factional infighting over reform policy, the party was now united. "We have stopped firing at each other and we are now ready to join forces and attack the government over its policies," she said.
Earlier, Roland Koch, the right-wing conservative Prime Minister of Hesse state and one of the main contenders to be the CDU candidate for chancellor, underscored the simmering unease in the party by publicly denouncing claims that Mrs Merkel had already been chosen for the job. "I have never been privy to any such arrangement," he said.
The party congress was designed to end months of speculation over the choice of a conservative candidate for chancellor. The CDU had been at loggerheads over the issue since Edmund Stoiber, the conservative Bavarian Prime Minister and former chancellor candidate, narrowly lost to Mr Schröder's Social Democrats in Germany's 2002 election.
Yesterday's unexpectedly weak support for Mrs Merkel showed that the CDU still faces an uphill battle. Until recently, the party had sustained a clear 10 per cent lead in the opinion polls over Mr Schröder's coalition of Social Democrats and Greens ,which was attributed to the unpopularity of the government's economic reform programme. But with public opposition to reforms waning, the conservatives' lead slipped to only 7 per cent last month, and polls showed only 31 per cent of voters believed that Mrs Merkel had any chance of beating Mr Schröder in a general election.
Mrs Merkel, the daughter of a minister in the east German Protestant church, was brought up under Communism and followed an academic career as a doctor of physical chemistry until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Soon after, she joined the Christian Democrats. Although dismissed as "the girl" by reunited Germany's then chancellor Helmut Kohl, she became a cabinet minister in 1992.
In 1999, her reputation as one of the few Christian Democrat politicians left untainted by the party slush-fund scandal surrounding former chancellor Kohl, allowed her to be elected conservative party leader with a mission to restore public confidence in the party.
Yet under her leadership, the CDU has been riven by months of bickering over health and tax-reform polices that would offer a more radical conservative alternative to Mr Schröder's unpopular attempts to kickstart Germany's ailing economy. The row reached a high point last month when two senior reform conservatives were ousted from the leadership on Mrs Merkel's orders.
Yesterday the party tried to regain public support by announcing campaigns to oppose Turkey's EU membership and rigorously control immigration: "The multicultural society has proved a failure," Mrs Merkel declared. Critics say Mrs Merkel's reform policies bear no comparison to those implemented by British conservatives during the 1980s. They have also suggested that she is too lacklustre a figure to stand a chance against Mr Schröder.