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Germany's Merkel turns caution to strength
Mon Sep 21, 2009 8:07pm EDT
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By Noah Barkin
TEMPLIN, Germany (Reuters) - Hans-Ulrich Beeskow still recalls the quiet determination of teenager Angela Kasner as she swept aside male rivals to reach the local, regional and then national math championships in communist East Germany.
"Angela was very focused, very analytical, and took her time getting to a solution," said the 70-year old retired math teacher. "She was highly talented, an absolute exception, but not a student that stuck out and sought attention or accolades."
Four decades later, the same low-key drive that impressed her teachers at the Goethe Schule in Templin has helped turn the woman now known as Angela Merkel into one of the world's most influential leaders.
Merkel, 55, appears on track to win a second term as German chancellor on Sunday after four years of rule that have won her admirers at home and abroad, but also confounded some of Berlin's partners.
On the global political stage, where macho personalities like France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schroeder seem the norm, the shy Lutheran pastor's daughter has made her name with caution and control.
While many fellow leaders revel in the spotlight, their private lives often dominating the headlines, Merkel seems to view the attention that comes with her status as an unfortunate by-product, to be tolerated and contained.
Over the past four years, she has been more moderator than leader of her awkward "grand coalition" with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), dashing early comparisons to hard-driving former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
When her counterparts in foreign capitals abroad rushed to announce ambitious measures to combat the financial crisis last year, Merkel resisted pressure for quick steps and bold speeches, taking her time to think things through before acting.
This go-slowly approach earned her accusations of weak leadership. In the heat of the crisis, French President Sarkozy famously jibed: "While France is working, Germany is thinking."
But Merkel's reserve has also turned her, against the odds, into one of Germany's most popular post-war chancellors -- polls show three in four Germans believe she is doing a good job -- and made her a reliable, go-to leader in Europe for heads of government outside the bloc.
"Merkel has brought a new style to politics after the machismo of Schroeder and others," said Juergen Falter, a political scientist at Mainz University.
Merkel was plucked from obscurity by former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and became the youngest member of his cabinet in 1991 as minister for women and youth.
In her early years in politics Merkel, who still uses the name of her first husband, was seen as the token "Ossi," or easterner, of the first post-unification government. This led would-be rivals in her heavily Catholic, male-dominated conservative party to underestimate her.
"At first nobody took her seriously," Michael Glos, a veteran conservative who has known Merkel since the 1990s and served as German economy minister under her until February, told Reuters. "But it gradually became clear that she had both ability and ambition." Continued...
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