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Merkel ready to take reins of power in Germany

BERLIN—Angela Merkel on Tuesday will become Germany's first female chancellor and the first former East German to lead this country's government.

She's also likely to be first in line for heavy criticism as Germany's new "Grand Coalition" government moves to cut or reform cherished social programs in an effort to combat high unemployment, low consumer confidence and a scarcity of recent private investment.

"Her victory will be an important moment, but she won't have long to savor it," said Frank Umbach, who studies German policy and society at The German Council on Foreign Relations, a research center.

The Bundestag, Germany's parliament, is expected to vote her into office in the morning, and she is to be sworn in by mid-afternoon—the result of months of negotiations between Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union and its traditional rivals, the center-left Social Democratic Party. Neither side won enough votes to govern on its own in last September's elections.

The "grand coalition" they agreed to controls 448 seats in parliament, compared with the opposition's 166, and should be able to force through any legislation.

But problems are expected from within, much as they'd be expected in a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, sparking fears that the coalition could fracture quickly and leave openings for radical elements from the left and the right.

"I give them one year to realize their initial reforms weren't radical enough to get Germany back up and running, and then a year after that to implement sweeping change," Umbach said. "If they don't get immediate results after that, the only thing holding them together will be a mutual fear of the radical politics preparing to take power from them."

The grand coalition is expected first to act on an agreement it negotiated in principle to increase the sales tax from 16 percent to 19 percent and fill loopholes in the tax code, in an attempt to reduce the national deficit by $41 billion a year.

Some argue that Merkel's presence alone is a sign that Germany is ready for change. This has been a land of men in charge not only since the formation of Germany in 1871, but throughout Prussian history for centuries before that.

Manfred Goertemaker, a German historian at Potsdam University, said the fact that neither Merkel's gender nor her East German origin was a campaign issue says a lot about German society today.

"Even 10 years ago, her selection would have been shocking," he said. "But these are practical times."

Merkel is considered a practical politician. Unlike Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who's being depicted these days as running Germany because he wanted to be in charge, Merkel is being portrayed as a public servant. She even recently said, "I want to serve Germany," something considered mildly shocking in modern German politics.

She's a shy, hard-working former physicist. The child of a pastor, she was raised in communist East Germany, making her an "Ossi," as people from the former East are called.

The German newspaper Tagesspiegel said Monday that Merkel's background might be a great strength: "The Easterners are different. They have survived revolutions of all kinds. So what are reforms to them? Everyday life. They are not afraid of questioning everything, and this is what they and we need."

This week's Der Spiegel wrote, "When the others go wild, she stays calm," and added that at a recent function honoring the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, she noted, "God, 15 years ago today I set foot into the West for the first time. And now I'm to run this country."

She has promised not to be iron fisted. She told the newspaper Die Zeit that while she would like a more conservative government, she's aware that her party didn't win a majority in the elections. "We have to respect an election result that reflects the opinions of the Germans on the future of their country," she said.

Ulrike Guerot, a trans-Atlantic relations expert at the German Marshall Fund research center in Berlin, said that will include re-emphasizing the importance of the United States as a German partner, returning Germany to its more comfortable role as a bridge builder between the United States and France, rather than as part of a Franco-German bloc that often seemed to oppose the United States.

But Guerot said a German change of position on such ideas as sending troops into Iraq would remain impossible.

"She will want to re-establish that we are very close friends with the United States, though part of that is that even best friends have the right to disagree," Guerot said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050530 Merkel bio, 20050530 Merkel career

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on KRT Direct (from KRT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Angela Merkel

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