Merkel pledges to win back voters' trust

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With Germany's general election in less than three weeks, the conservative leader was greeted by thousands of Christian Democrat (CDU) party delegates and ordinary Germans waving "Angie" placards as she addressed the crowd at Westfalen Hall indoor sports stadium in Dortmund. In a speech which amounted to a scathing attack on Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his failure to combat unemployment, Mrs Merkel, 50, said: "There are now five million people without a job in this country. Germany needs a government that says what it is going to do before an election, a government that keeps its promises and wins back voters' destroyed trust."

Thousands of Merkel supporters, dressed in the Christian Democrats' new election colour - orange - rose to their feet to give her a series of standing ovations.

Overshadowed by a huge party slogan that read "Decision for Germany", Mrs Merkel was sitting beside Helmut Kohl, the country's former conservative "Unification Chancellor", and despite recent objections by the Rolling Stones, the party still blasted the crowd with ther group's 1973 hit "Angie".

Referring to the dismal economic record of Mr Schröder's government, Mrs Merkel pointed to the 40,000 companies which collapse in Germany each year and the 1,000 jobs lost each day: "I cannot accept that jobs are being created everywhere else in the world but not in Germany."

Mrs Merkel's speech was intended as the opening shot in the CDU's final push for victory in the country's general election on 18 September. But her weak television performances and lack of charisma appear to have persuaded her party to begin re-marketing her as a politician of trust who does not balk at unpopular measures.

Volker Kauder, the party's general secretary, described Mrs Merkel as a person who was a "compass" for all Germans after the disillusion they had experienced during Mr Schröder's tenure. "The people are yearning for someone they can trust."

The message was underlined by Mrs Merkel, who highlighted her party's commitment to raise value added tax by 2 per cent after taking office. She also confirmed that she had chosen Paul Kirchhof, a controversial Heidelberg economics professor, as a future economics minister in her cabinet. Professor Kirchhof has been criticised within the CDU for proposing a 25 per cent flat-rate income tax.

Mrs Merkel's push for victory came after opinion polls suggested at the weekend that her party had beaten back slight gains made by Mr Schröder's Social Democrats in recent weeks and was now firmly on course to win the election.

A survey for Germany's ZDF television channel predicted that the Christian Democrats would romp home with 43 per cent of the vote compared to a mere 30 per cent polled for the Chancellor's party.

In Germany's 2002 election, Mr Schröder snatched victory from the conservatives at the last minute by opposing the impending US invasion of Iraq and by visiting victims of the floods that had swept the eastern half of the country.

Hopes of a repeat performance appeared to have all but evaporated yesterday, despite the Chancellor's warnings about an possible US-inspired war against Iran, and his support for this summer's latest flood victims in southern Germany.

"The sort of catastrophe now needed to turn this election around could hardly be wished on any country," an SPD MP told Der Spiegel news magazine.

A poll showed that 39 per cent of Germans expected Mr Schröder to be re-elected, while 51 per cent thought he was merely campaigning to "assure himself a place in the history books".