Chancellor Angela MerkelOne trait Angela Merkel shares with her political godfather, Helmut Kohl, is that she is commonly underestimated. Affable, professorial and not particularly charismatic, the pastor's daughter from East Germany is no Teutonic Margaret Thatcher. But the simple fact that Merkel, who will be elected by the Parliament on Tuesday, managed to come this far in a mere 15 years, a woman from the East without a constituency of her own competing against men reared in the clubby world of West German politics, should be a warning against underestimating her.
To be sure, Merkel is starting her stint as chancellor this week in a far weaker position than Kohl. She is backed by a coalition of two diametrically opposed parties. The German economy is sick, the European Union is rudderless and Berlin's relations with Washington are the worst in many years. Merkel, moreover, comes to office handicapped by a coalition agreement that disallows much of the economic reform agenda upon which she campaigned. German voters shied away from her original ideas as too radical. But the coalition's program may be too timid. Instead of the deep reforms of the labor markets and tax system that Germany needs, the pact calls only for an extension of the probation period for new hires from six months to 24, and a 3 percentage-point hike in the sales tax.
Yet Merkel has strengths. One is that neither major party wants to be seen as the brake on needed change, and so are doomed to make a go of the coalition. Another is that the new chancellor may actually have gained in authority from the seemingly debilitating maneuvering that led to the coalition agreement. Two powerful political barons, departing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the head of Merkel's own sister party in Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, opted not to join the new government. And a rebellion within the junior partner in the coalition led to the election of another pragmatic former East German, Matthias Platzeck, as its head. The net effect could be a more cooperative cabinet, and more leeway for Merkel to shape its agenda.
On the foreign front, Merkel is taking charge of the biggest country in Europe at a time when the leaders of the United States, Britain and France are all losing political momentum. This gives her an opportunity to quickly make her mark in foreign affairs. Merkel has announced that she will visit Paris, Warsaw, Brussels and London immediately on taking office, followed soon after by trips to Washington and Moscow. Her aides have indicated that she intends to rectify Schröder's damaging attempts to play Europe off against the United States, and to cool the overly ardent relationship that he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
All this makes for a formidable challenge. But Merkel has made it clear that she has no illusions about the scale of the task she has assumed. We wish her every success.