As a woman in politics, Angela Merkel has opened many doors for German women. As the first female leader of the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU - Christian Democrats), Merkel became the first female candidate for chancellor in 2005. The September 18 General Election have not only gained attention for this reason, but also because it was the closest race for chancellor in German history. Running against Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the Sozialdemokratische Partei (SPD), Merkel and the CDU won 35% of the vote versus 34% for the SPD, meaning the election was a stalemate. Consequently, Merkel will not move into the role of chancellor without some controversy.
Merkel, however, is no stranger to controversy. Merkel’s experiences growing up in the former GDR taught her to keep her feelings to herself, especially during stressful situations, because the GDR was a society where she lived in constant fear of State Security Police informers (Stasi). Her father was a Lutheran pastor, which made her especially vulnerable to the state, as her father’s work frequently put Merkel in the public eye. As a child, she lived with her family in the countryside 80km north of Berlin. She studied physics at the University of Leipzig (1973-78) and the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences (1978-1990), where she earned a doctorate in quantum chemistry. During her years at the Central Institute and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, she got involved in the democracy movement and became the deputy spokesperson for the united Germany’s new government under Lothar Maizièr. In 1990, she became Minister for Women and Youth in Helmut Kohl's cabinet. From there, she moved on to become Minister for the Environment and Reactor Safety in 1994.
Merkel's election to the position of chairperson in her party in 2000 surprised many because she seemed out of place among her constituents. The CDU is traditionally conservative and dominated by Catholic men from the West. Merkel, on the other hand, coming from the East, is a divorced Protestant woman with no children. As CDU leader, she was popular in the polls and a favoured candidate to challenge the chancellor in the 2002 elections. Because she was unpopular within the CDU and its sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), Edmund Stoiber of the CSU politically out-maneuvered her for that opportunity and squandered a large lead in the polls to run for chancellor himself.
Since 2002, Merkel has led the conservative opposition in Germany and been compared to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the English language press. This is partly because she is a successful woman with a political career and partly because she supports substantial rightwing reforms in Germany's economic and social system and takes an even more pro-business than her constituents. Some of the changes that she has advocated for German labour law include removing barriers to firing employees and increasing the number of allowable hours in a workweek. Merkel supported the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and advocates stronger ties between Germany and the United States. However, her relative success in the 2005 elections has won her the most attention internationally.
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