Reeling from financing scandals that threaten former Chancellor Helmut Kohl with criminal prosecution, Germany’s Christian Democrats have turned to Ms. Angela Merkel to cleanse the party. It is a gamble, but it could pay off.
Party leaders this week nominated Ms. Merkel, party secretary general, to succeed former chairman Wolfgang Schaeuble, who resigned over the slush-funds scandal that has turned the CDU upside down. Party members must confirm her at a convention next month, but she is running unopposed.
In some ways, Ms. Merkel is a curious choice. She is an “Ossi” — someone from former East Germany — and her career in politics spans only a decade. She is a Kohl protege, who took several Cabinet posts during the former chancellor’s long term in office. She is a Protestant in a country dominated by Catholics. Not only is Ms. Merkel the first female leader of a major party in Germany, but the CDU is perhaps the most conservative of them all. And finally, she is decidedly unphotogenic at a time when image is all in politics.
But that is only half the story. Ms. Merkel, a scientist by training, is a quick learner. Her climb through the party hierarchy — one dominated by men — was the result of hard work and intelligence. Her disdain for puffery suggests that she is a politician for whom substance is more important than style. Perhaps most important, she was the first CDU leader to break with Mr. Kohl and to demand that he account for his behavior. As a result, her popularity tops that of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
But restoring the image of the CDU and positioning herself for a run at the chancellery in 2002 are two different assignments. Ms. Merkel must first clean house. That means uncovering the truth behind the funding scandals and reassuring the German people that the CDU believes all citizens are equal before the law. She is well-suited to that task, but she cannot succeed if the entire party does not rally behind her. Its willingness to face the past is still unclear.
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