BERLIN, Sept 25 – German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seeking a second term at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy, has enjoyed a remarkable rise from East German bumpkin to Forbes magazine’s world’s most powerful woman.
The 55-year-old trained physicist developed the fighting instinct and chameleon-like qualities in the communist east that propelled her to become Germany’s first female leader and the youngest person to become chancellor.
An apple-cheeked pastor’s daughter, Merkel completed her unlikely ascent to power in 2005 as she took the reins of an unwieldy "grand coalition" of her conservatives and the Social Democrats after an inconclusive election.
An admittedly less-than-gifted public speaker, Merkel has relied on meticulous preparation, gentle humor and a modest style to lead Europe’s most populous country and strongest economic power.
But critics accuse her of passive leadership, waiting out feuds until a compromise has emerged and depriving the administration of a clear course.
Merkel has clung to her circumspect tactics in her campaign against Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her vice-chancellor and foreign minister, refusing to engage him in policy clashes and riding on her personal popularity.
"What, and whom, does Angela Merkel stand for?" the daily Berliner Zeitung asked in an analysis of her "mysterious" character this month. "Nobody knows. And that is the secret to her success."
Merkel recently dismissed conservative critics who got skittish over whether her above-the-fray style would lead them to victory.
"I am not going to become more aggressive but rather put my arguments in the foreground," she said.
Her cautious approach also drew fire as the financial crisis whipsawed through global markets late last year, with Merkel dubbed "Madame Non" by fellow leaders expecting a bigger German stimulus effort.
Merkel has racked up a number of foreign policy triumphs including a hard-fought compromise on the EU budget in 2005 and a climate deal under her 2007 G8 presidency that earned her the admiring nickname "Miss World".
But she has stepped on toes to defend national interests, as when she brokered a deal to sell ailing carmaker Opel, a key employer, to her favoured buyer backed by Russian capital, or fought off EU emissions caps on behalf of German heavy industry.
As host to the 2006 football World Cup, Merkel presided over a rediscovery of patriotism in a country still haunted by its Nazi past, as its cities and stadiums became a sea of German flags.
She also mended what she saw as her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder’s strident break with Washington over the Iraq war.
But she has seemed immune to US President Barack Obama’s charms, openly challenging him over his handling of the economic crisis, sparking rumours of a rift they have fought to dispel.
Angela Kasner, as she was known then, left Hamburg, West Germany a few weeks after her birth when her father, a Protestant preacher, decided to work in the communist East.
Locals remember her as a brilliant student who learned compromise and discretion early on to cope as a Christian in a totalitarian state.
"She could always adapt well — we all learned to do that in the GDR (East Germany) from the time we were children," Elke Schulz, who was a schoolmate of Angela’s from the age of 15, told AFP.
"Each of us had to have two faces."
Merkel earned a physics doctorate and stayed out of politics until the Berlin Well fell 20 years ago.
In 1990 she joined the CDU and won a parliamentary seat in the former East Germany, beginning her rise to the chancellery.
Merkel had to endure the fond but patronising nickname "the girl" bestowed by her mentor, then chancellor Helmut Kohl, who made her minister for women’s issues and later environmental affairs.
But in 2000, the frumpy newcomer rose to the head of the CDU when she alone had the courage to tell Kohl to quit as party chairman in a slush fund scandal.
It earned her powerful enemies in the CDU, a party dominated by Roman Catholic, west German family men where she has always been something of a misfit as a twice-married childless woman from the east.
Her husband of 11 years, chemist Joachim Sauer, is so publicity-shy he opted not to attend Merkel’s inauguration in 2005.