'Iron Maiden' elected to lead Kohl's party out of scandal

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The Independent Online

Christian Democrats sought to exorcise the ghosts of their scandalous past yesterday, relaunching Germany's biggest opposition party under the leadership of the "Iron Maiden".

After so many months of bitter infighting, described by the outgoing chairman as "criminal intrigues", the election was in the end an anticlimax. Angela Merkel, the 45-year-old physicist from the East, was the only candidate to carry on where her predecessors Wolfgang Schäuble and Helmut Kohl had failed.

"Our party is intact," Ms Merkel declared after her landslide victory. "We are back."

Back where, though, she would not say. The spin-doctors had been hard at work papering over the cracks between two fundamentally opposing ideologies, not to mention the division between Kohl loyalists and opponents. For the first time since 1951, Mr Kohl gave this party conference a miss.

However, his absence could not conceal the rifts.

Some speakers, including Ms Merkel, sought to bury their former chancellor by praising him. Others, such as Mr Schäuble, the last victim of those "criminal intrigues", would not even mention his name, andrefused to join in the applause when the Kohl platitudes rolled.

Ms Merkel is the most liberal leader the CDU has had, the new general secretary, Ruprecht Polenz, is of a similar ilk, whereas the leader of the parliamentary group, Friedrich Merz, is as far to the right as one can find in mainstream politics anywhere outside Bavaria.

Ms Merkel's hour-long speech was thus a tightrope act, seeking to dispel some of the lingering suspicions about her. She spoke about the need to protect human embryos, and remained silent about her well-known liberal views on abortion.

She beat the patriotic drum and also paid tribute to the Catholic values of her party, despite being the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.

The self-denial reached fever pitch when she lashed out at plans by Gerhard Schröder, the Chancellor, to bring in computer specialists from Asia and Eastern Europe.

In the coming regionalelections in North RhineWestphalia, the CDU is resorting to the use of xenophobic slogans to woo voters.

Ms Merkel's distaste of such tactics is common knowledge, yet yesterday she joined in the populist chorus against the new Gastarbeiter. This, not the Kohl legacy, is now the most divisive issue in the party.

The conservative wing, taking a leaf out of Jörg Haider's book, wants the CDU to veer right. But the liberals, pointing at the fate of Britain's Conservatives, argue that it would be a mistake to do so.

Mr Polenz was the link man between the CDU and the Tories for many years, and feels his party should be wary of emulating the British example. "Our Conservative friends were so busy with European affairs, they found themselves pushed out of the centre," Mr Polenz said. "We must remain in the centre, because that is where elections are won."

But the next regional elections will be fought on the right flank, and it is by no means clear that the liberal wing will be able to call the shots in the general elections of 2002.

Many in the party see the tough but inexperienced Ms Merkel as a caretaker manager. The decision on who will lead the CDU into battle against Mr Schröder has been deferred until then.