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Merkel Elected First Woman Chancellor

Angela Merkel was elected Germany's first woman chancellor Tuesday in a parliamentary vote that ends months of uncertainty and ushers in a fragile new government that must prove it can revive Europe's top economy.

Merkel, the 51-year-old leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), won 397 votes in the 614-seat Bundestag, easily securing the majority she needed to become Germany's eighth post-war chancellor and first to have grown up in former East Germany.

Her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who initially refused to cede his post after her conservatives narrowly beat his Social Democrats (SPD) in a September 18 election, was the first to congratulate a smiling Merkel after parliamentary speaker Norbert Lammert announced the result to a hushed chamber.
"Dear Dr Merkel, you are now the first ever elected female head of government in Germany. That is a strong signal for many women, and certainly for some men too," Lammert said to laughs.

President Horst Koehler wished her "lots of luck, lots of strength and God's blessing."

Merkel and her cross-party cabinet of conservatives and Social Democrats (SPD) were sworn in later in the day, formally taking over from the SPD-Greens government that Schroeder has led for the past seven years.

Her confirmation as chancellor comes two months after her conservatives only narrowly beat Schroeder's party in a vote she had been expected to win easily, and a half year after Schroeder shocked the nation by calling for early polls.

The election result left the pastor's daughter with no choice but to form a coalition with the SPD, arch-rivals of her conservatives for much of the post-war era.

During tough month-long coalition negotiations, Merkel, who has been compared with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was forced to abandon her most ambitious plans for shaking up the German social welfare system.

Her new government has vowed to repair ties with Washington, strained by Schroeder's opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, and promised to revive the economy and cut unemployment.

Low-key approach

With 397 votes, Merkel won more support in parliament than any previous chancellor, but 51 of the 448 deputies from her coalition chose not to support her, eliciting some expressions of disappointment from her cabinet.

"Perhaps it would have been nicer to have a '4' before the figure, but that's an aesthetic issue, not a question of stability in the coming years," said her new Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

"It was a good result that secures a stable majority for the government in parliament."

Polls show a majority of Germans think Merkel's unwieldy alliance, the first "grand coalition" since the 1960s, will not last a full four-year term.

Merkel represents a generational change and a break in style from the flamboyant Schroeder, who favored Italian suits and fat cigars and seemed most at ease when in the media spotlight.

Her low-key approach on display yesterday as she sat in the lower house of parliament with a restrained smile and sober black suit has been mocked in the German media.

But some commentators believe it is tailor-made for her new coalition, which bridges right and left and will require steady, delicate management.

(China Daily November 23, 2005)


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