Germany's opposition leader vows to fight on

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The Independent Online

Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany's largest opposition party, confronted her critics and made it clear that she would not let herself be bullied into stepping down.

Defying attempts to end her tenure as head of the Christian Democrat Union, Ms Merkel told the party congress in Dresden that she was not ready to quit. After a combative speech, which drew a seven-minute standing ovation, Ms Merkel appeared firmly entrenched, while one potential challenger seemed already out of the race.

Ms Merkel became the first woman and the first east German to head a major political party in Germany. She took over a party decapitated by scandal two years ago and has been under fire almost from the beginning. Powerful grandees conspired to turn this congress into a leadership contest, blaming her for a succession of regional election defeats. Under her leadership, the opposition has failed to capitalise on the weaknesses of the government and the economic downturn.

But there was no evidence yesterday of the feebleness she is often accused of. She delivered a rousing speech, infused with a great deal of aggression – a quality her detractors have found lacking in her so far. This was not the moment, she declared, to pick the person to lead German conservatives against Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in next September's polls. Only "outsiders" wanted the issue settled now.

"A Union that allows itself to be put under outside pressure on this question would lose before the elections have begun," Ms Merkel declared.

While most delegates applauded this stance, several members sat motionless. One of them, Erwin Teufel, Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg, had just failed to force a leadership contest on the eve of the congress. The "outsider" Ms Merkel had in mind was Edmund Stoiber, Prime Minister of Bavaria, a land governed by the CDU's sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Usually it is the leader of the larger CDU who heads the joint ticket in the national elections. But the polls indicate that Mr Stoiber would be far better placed than Ms Merkel to defeat Mr Schröder. Although most Germans vote for parties, not for personalities, they do so primarily with the future chancellor in mind.

Ever since the scandals of Helmut Kohl, the party has been in deep depression. Ms Merkel has worked hard to inject some self-confidence, and yesterday she declared that that mission was now complete. The party, however, thinks it cannot win with her at the helm. The latest polls reveal 51 per cent of conservative voters want Mr Stoiber to lead them, and only 24 per cent still have faith in Ms Merkel.

Wolfgang Schäuble, the previous interim leader, has been mooted as a rival. He has not declared his hand, and probably just as well. The polls show he enjoys even less support in the CDU than Ms Merkel.

The beauty contest between Ms Merkel and Mr Stoiber will move into the penultimate round today, when the Bavarian addresses the congress. He has already been assured of a bombastic musical entry, and the stopwatches will be out at the end of his speech. He has seven minutes to beat.

If Ms Merkel survives, the plan is to pick the joint "chancellor candidate" early next year. The choice is an east German woman on the liberal wing versus a southern arch-conservative. Ms Merkel evidently believes she can still win.