Merkel takes over as German leader

Posted in Europe | 23-Nov-05 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

Newly elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, shakes hands with German President Horst Koehler at the presidential residence Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005, after she was handed over her letter of appointment.
BERLIN Angela Merkel was formally elected Germany's first woman chancellor on Tuesday in a historic parliamentary vote that also inaugurated a broad coalition government that has promised to revive Europe's largest economy.

Merkel, the 51-year-old leader of the conservative Christian Democrats, won 397 votes in the 614-seat Bundestag to become Germany's eighth post-World War II chancellor. She is the first to have grown up in what used to be Communist East Germany, a region where unemployment has been a major problem since re-unification in 1990.

After the vote, in the Chancellery, she thanked her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, whose Social Democratic Party is now part of her "grand coalition," for his government's efforts to spur economic growth and vowed she would build on them.

Her coalition will be judged on whether it succeeds in reducing the unemployment rate, which stands today at 11.2 percent. It wants to try by reducing nonpayroll costs for employers and paying for them by cutting government spending and raising the sales tax to 19 percent, from 16 percent, in 2007.

If the coalition succeeds, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats alike will claim credit as they keep their eyes on regional elections next year and, if the coalition stays together for a whole term, on a new federal election in four years.

As she waited for the parliamentary vote to wind up, Merkel chatted with Volker Kauder, her party's general secretary and one of her loyal advisers.

One of her most powerful conservative rivals, Edmund Stoiber - the premier of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union party - stood far away, in a corner behind his party's parliamentary seats.

After the voting, Kauder said on ARD television: "We achieved an excellent result. No German chancellor has ever received as many votes as Angela Merkel."

Announcing that result, Norbert Lammert, the new president and speaker of the Bundestag, said: "Dear Dr. Merkel, you are now the first-ever elected female head of government of Germany. That is a strong signal for many women and certainly for some men too."

Merkel played a role in the East German opposition movement under Communist rule and joined the Christian Democrats in 1990.

She was the first young leader of her party who dared to suggest in 1999 to Helmut Kohl - who as chancellor had united Germany after 45 years of division but was being swamped by a party finance scandal - that it was time to make way for new blood. And she refused to retreat after the very close election in September put her just ahead of Schröder, claiming she had won the right to be chancellor in a grand coalition.

President Horst Köhler administered the oath of office in the Schloss Charlottenburg in the western part of Berlin.

Schröder, meanwhile, surprised his colleagues this week when he announced that he would not remain a legislator. Instead, he told a party gathering, he would work as a lawyer in Berlin and write a book.

Christian Democrats have acknowledge that the party suffered its worst election result since 1949. Matthias Wissman, a senior member of the party, said it had to be revitalized if it wanted to clinch power in the next election.

"We know the election campaign was not very successful," he said. "We have to open the doors by letting fresh winds in. Merkel is not the typical party person. She wants to let in fresh wind in."

Werner Hoyer, a leading member of the pro-business Free Democrats, whom Merkel had tried to recruit to her coalition, said the chancellor now had to sell to the party the proposition that reform and social justice go hand in hand.

"The Christian Democrats must become a thoroughly modern party that is socially sensitive, reform-oriented, open to the world and tolerant," he said.