German parties to share power

Country to get first female chancellor


BERLIN -- After weeks of public bickering and quiet deals over late-night dinners, Germany soon will swear in its first female chancellor.

The nation's political crisis eased yesterday when conservatives and liberals agreed to form a coalition government around Angela Merkel, a physicist raised in the former communist East Germany. The deal crystallized when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced that he would step aside and allow his Social Democrats to share power with Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, or CDU.

Germany has been in political disarray since elections Sept. 18 gave neither party a clear majority. Schroeder initially refused to concede, but the pressures of a troubled economy and an agitated public forced him to accept compromise. Schroeder and Merkel spent recent nights negotiating Cabinet posts and finessing an agreement that their parties are expected to finalize by mid-November.

"We have achieved something big," Merkel said at a news conference after a morning negotiating session that assured the CDU the chancellery. "We have set our aim to create a coalition that stands for new policies. We want to work together for the people of this country."

When asked how she felt about the seemingly certain prospect of becoming chancellor, a tired-looking Merkel responded: "I'm doing well. I'm in a good mood, but I have a lot of work ahead of me."

Merkel indicated that she would strengthen relations with the United States that have been strained over German opposition to the Iraq war. "That doesn't mean we have to agree on every issue," she said. "But there needs to be a good, trustful relationship."

Merkel's ascension marks the final weeks of Schroeder's seven years in office. Schroeder began reforming his nation's vast welfare state but failed to reduce high unemployment and bolster the economy. He might be remembered best for challenging President Bush on Iraq and urging Germany to move beyond the stigma of the Nazi past to become a world player.

Schroeder had no immediate statement on his future, but it appeared he would not have a role in the new government.

The CDU and Social Democrat Party, or SPD, are expected to hold party conventions and endorse the deal next month. The new parliament takes office Oct. 18, but probably won't vote on a chancellor until the party meetings are concluded. Schroeder will remain in office until Merkel is appointed.

The political deadlock in what was nicknamed the "chancellor war" emerged three weeks ago when Merkel, a reticent political tactician, squandered a 20-point lead in the polls to finish 1 percentage point ahead of the Social Democrats. It was an embarrassing setback for the CDU. But the party, including some officials who had wanted to replace Merkel, ultimately rallied around the 51-year-old daughter of a Lutheran minister.

Schroeder sensed he would not remain in power, but his charisma and adamant tone after the election gave Social Democrats leverage in negotiating Cabinet posts. Under the agreement, Merkel was forced into major concessions, giving the SPD eight ministries, including foreign, justice, and labor and social affairs. Her party will control the chancellery, six ministries and an additional Cabinet post.

The coalition is expected to be fragile. The closeness of the election underscored German apprehension over social and economic reforms needed to reduce 11.6 percent unemployment and rejuvenate Europe's largest economy.

Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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