Angela Merkel, CDU's top candidate for the upcoming general elections, delivers a speech during an election campaign rally in Frankfurt
Alex Grimm  /  Reuters
Angela Merkel, Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) top candidate for the upcoming general elections in Germany delivers a speech during an election campaign rally in Frankfurt on Thursday.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 9/16/2005 11:15:20 AM ET 2005-09-16T15:15:20

Ever since Margaret Thatcher retired as Britain's prime minister in 1990, she has been remembered as the first, and so far only, woman to lead a major European democracy.

History books might have to be updated this coming Sunday — for the first time in Germany, voters here will have the chance to choose a woman as the country's leader in national elections. 

And not only is 51-year-old Angela Merkel the first female candidate for German chancellor, but she is also a conservative politician and grew up in Germany's former communist East.

Merkel herself has repeatedly stressed that she does not want to be singled out as a representative of Germany's eastern states and says she cares for voters and their problems in all parts of the country.

But her gender — as well as her upbringing as a priest's daughter in eastern Germany, the region that feels Germany's economic woes to the greatest extent — could play an important role in the election race.

It's something she seems to be taking into account — objective observers note that the former scientist’s appearance has changed lately from a somewhat dowdy image to a more stylish look since she became the frontrunner for her conservative Christian Democratic Party.

"Never before in my political life have I been taken so seriously as woman,"  Merkel acknowledged. "And in return, I have publicly recognized my feminine identity to an unusual measure.” 

Not yet Margaret Thatcher
In the mold of American television debates, Merkel and Gerhard Schroeder, the current German chancellor, exchanged arguments in their only public head-to-head confrontation a few weeks ago.

Polls found that Schroeder, who has led a coalition between the leftist Social Democrats and Germany's Green Party for the past seven years, won the contest.

Yet Merkel, widely regarded as less media-savy, surprised many critics with her unusually aggressive performance. Many media outlets in Germany where quick to portray her as a new Margaret Thatcher. Observers, though, say that such comparisons are overdrawn.

"As far as I can judge, Angela Merkel is not like Margaret Thatcher, and she actually should not try to  be like her," Thatcher biographer Charles Moore told Germany's Die Welt newspaper on Friday.

Others say that neither her image, politics nor Germany's political structures make her situation the same as Thatcher's.

"Even if Angela Merkel wanted to copy Thatcher's radical renewal program, she would fail bitterly in Germany's political system, where federal states have a strong veto right," said professor Juergen Falter from the University of Mainz.

In addition, voters' decisions in Germany traditionally are more influenced by party programs than by individual candidates.

"Such a television debate ... is uncommon to our political system," explained German political analyst Carsten Reinemann.

As for Merkel's gender, some argue that a greater number of the 32 million eligible female voters might support Merkel than if she were a male candidate with the same policies.

"For the first time a woman is campaigning for the office of chancellor. And that is not supposed to play a role for us women?" Alice Schwarzer, Germany's leading feminist, asked in an editorial.

It's all about the economy
Such questions, though, pale in comparison with the main issues — Germany's ailing economy and the future of its costly welfare system.

Both Schroeder's governing Social Democrats (SPD) and Merkel's Christian Democratic party (CDU) have focused their speeches and rallies on solutions to tackle Germany's high jobless rate (11.4 percent).

Many analysts believe that Schroeder hit a nerve with voters when he warned that the conservatives may tear apart Germany's cradle-to-grave social care apparatus. And, indeed, in the final week of the campaign, polls show that Schroeder's party is narrowing Merkel's narrow lead.

But Schroeder's party has failed to bring a significant halt to rising unemployment, despite the introduction of reforms, including cuts in welfare benefits and making the unemployed fill all types of job vacancies regardless of their occupation.

And the unpopular measures have alienated many of his traditional supporters. As a result, many of his potential voters are now supporting a new far-left party, which includes members of the former East German communist party.

Hard line on reform
Meanwhile, Merkel has seized on the economic crisis and insists that the reforms must be taken further.

With her calls for more flexibility and lower costs in the labor market, including measures to reduce dismissal protection at German firms, Merkel has garnered the support of employers' associations and large companies in Germany.

But unions have warned they would go on strike and take legal action should she try to erode their role.

Merkel is trying to avoid direct confrontation with Germany's traditionally strong labor movement, but says the nation has no real choice.

"Germany can only be a strong, reliable partner in the world if we are also economically strong, and that is where we are lacking," Merkel said earlier this month.

New foreign policy
Foreign policy has not been the top issue in this election, but Schroeder has been sure to remind voters of greater experience in this area and, in particular, his stance against the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq, which helped him win a surprise second term in 2002.

Schroeder's opposition to the war and his populist manner angered the U.S. government and led to a temporary diplomatic freeze between the two countries.

However, even though the relationship between the two administrations has improved, many political analysts in Germany believe that a change in the German government, with Merkel as chancellor, could improve bilateral relations even further.

"Merkel supported Bush's Iraq policy. And her position on the Iraq war was far more right-wing than that of her own party," said Professor Thomas Risse, an expert on foreign and security policy at Berlin University.

"The political atmosphere between the two countries would change under Merkel because President Bush favors a conservative government and anything but Schroeder," said Falter from the University of Mainz.

But, does this mean Germany will be sending troops to Iraq if Merkel wins?

Very unlikely.

Officials in Merkel's party emphasize that they will continue Schroeder’s current policy and will provide humanitarian aid to Iraq, as well as training for Iraqi police forces. There has been no mention of a future deployment of German soldiers to Iraqi territory.

Tight race
Such matters may be moot. With Schroeder mounting a late comeback, observers are increasingly doubtful that a majority of voters believe that Merkel can reshape German politics with a Thatcher-like style, reviving the economy, reforming outdated institutions and reinvigorating the nation's foreign policy.

Similar to the year 2002, when only 6,027 votes decided the election in favor of Schroeder's party and his coalition partner, the Greens, Germany could face yet another tight race on Sunday.

The most recent opinion polls suggest that neither the current coalition nor Merkel's preferred alliance of her conservative party and the middle-of-the-road Free Democrats (FDP) will end up with a majority of seats.

Speculation is rising that Merkel will have to turn to Gerhard Schroeder to form a so called "grand coalition" under her leadership. Under that model, the two major parties would have to share power, leading to fears that such an arrangement could further paralyze the country.

"Politics would be reduced to the smallest common denominator in a grand coalition, which would not allow the necessary progress," Matthias Jung of the FGW research institute told the German television network ZDF.

And Merkel? Merkel might be the first female chancellor, but she could be caught between clashing political programs.

Andy Eckardt is a NBC News producer based in Germany. Jessica Loehndorf, an intern at NBC's Mainz Bureau, contributed to this report.

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