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After Unusual Elections, German Parliament Will Elect Merkel Soon

By Richard Bernstein


At long last, two months after one of the strangest elections in Germany’s modern history, Parliament seems certain on Tuesday to elect Angela Merkel, the leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, as chancellor, the first woman to hold the position.

Merkel will immediately take power, name a Cabinet and actually start governing, after weeks of intense negotiations over a program to pursue a “grand coalition” with her chief rivals, the departing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats.

It is not only that Merkel is a woman, or even that she will be the first chancellor from the former East Germany, that promises to make Tuesday a moment to remember in this country’s history.

In what now seems a swift and unexpected change, Merkel’s arrival in power signals a shift to a new political generation, one that did not go through the usual rites of passage to power in Germany.

By an almost eerie coincidence, the Social Democratic Party last week elected a new leader, Matthias Platzeck, who is also an easterner, leading to much comment that after holding them in something close to contempt since unification, the western power brokers have turned to easterners to guide them out of the country’s economic crisis.

The emergence of Merkel and Platzeck probably does not constitute a broad trend, but analysts say they both represent some of the qualities of the generation now taking over in German politics.

They are seen as potentially more pragmatic, less ideologically driven than those who have governed for the last half-century or so. Perhaps most significant, the new leaders are one step further removed from the earlier leadership’s preoccupation with German history and the limitations it placed on their freedom of action.

Not only is the generation represented by chancellors like Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, which brought West Germany safely through the Cold War and into the era of unification, gone. Gone, too, are the more recent politicians, like Schroeder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who came of age during the 1960s student protests and who have dominated German politics for the last seven years.

What takes their place is not entirely certain, in part because the newcomers are outsiders and have less of a track record than is normal for top political leaders here. Indeed, it is far from certain that the coalition government Merkel will bring to power will last long enough to make much of an impact.

But what is certain is that at a moment that everybody deems critical, the chiefs of both parties are different from what came before.

“It’s an important symbol that the easterners have come to power,” said Uwe Andersen, a political science professor at Ruhr University in Bochum. “They have a more pragmatic way of doing things and they are used to big changes in life, and therefore, I think, they are not so reluctant to face up to new challenges.”