Raised behind the Wall, Merkel faces new divisions

Breaking ground: The first woman on the top job in Germany wants to bring the country closer together
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BERLIN - Angela Merkel elbowed her way through a too-close election, an incumbent who didn't want to leave and weeks of arduous negotiations with her former partisan opponents.

The 51-year-old conservative's tenacity - first learned as a churchgoer and minister's daughter in officially atheist East Germany - finally paid off.

On Tuesday, Merkel became the first woman to govern modern Germany - and the country's first leader to grow up under communism in the Soviet-occupied East.

She had been through too much, and faces too big a job dealing with 11 percent unemployment, to crow after parliament elected her chancellor, or prime minister. That's not the buttoned-down former scientist's style, anyway.

''It is a happy moment, but also a new start into a not exactly easy time, and I will certainly gather a lot of experience, but I also hope I can change some things,'' Merkel said on ARD public television.

A couple of hours after being sworn in, she admitted that she was still getting used to being called ''Mrs. Chancellor.''

''I think for the next couple of days I'll still look around, 'Do they mean me?''' she said.

Merkel cleared hurdles including an unexpectedly close election Sept. 18, in which her conservatives finished just 1 percentage point ahead of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's center-left Social Democrats, with neither getting a majority.

That meant a drawn-out political crisis, solved by forming a coalition of conservatives and union-backed Social Democrats - no easy task, and she first had to persuade Schroeder to give up his demand to continue after seven years in power.

There was one last speed bump Tuesday: Some 50 of the 448 deputies committed to her coalition voted against her, a sign of the potential troubles with the coalition. Many fear the alliance won't be united enough to cut the costs Germany's welfare state puts on businesses.

But she won easily, 397-202, and permitted herself a smile as deputies applauded and Schroeder was the first to walk across the floor of the Bundestag and shake her hand.

Merkel said the ''no'' votes did not bother her. ''My thoughts go back, eight weeks back, and I can only say, it's an excellent outcome and a very solid foundation so that this government can successfully do its work.''

She said that she had ''few worries today. I want to get to work.''

That will mean the difficult job of turning around Europe's biggest economy after years of stagnation. The election results showed little support for action many economists say is needed to attack 11 percent unemployment and sluggish growth.

She also faces foreign policy challenges, such as nursing a recovering relationship with the United States. Merkel's more pro-American outlook contrasts with Schroeder's criticism of the war in Iraq. She also has suggested Berlin will place less emphasis on relations with Paris and Moscow, and says she views Europe as a partner, not a counterweight, to the United States.

Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the trained physicist was an unknown researcher at the East German Academy of Sciences. But she rose quickly through the ranks of her party after Germany was reunified in 1990.

Tuesday's vote came exactly six months after Schroeder announced that he was seeking national elections a year early, saying after a disastrous state election defeat that he no longer had a mandate for his reform efforts.

The inconclusive election forced Germany's biggest parties into talks on a so-called grand coalition. Their main area of agreement was that Germany's budget deficit must be brought within a European Union-imposed limit by 2007.

That led them to agree on tax increases, including raising the top income tax rate on people earning over $295,000 annually from 42 to 45 percent, and raising value-added tax from 16 to 19 percent in 2007.

Economists and business leaders say Germany's chief problem is the high cost of labor, particularly non-wage costs such as payroll taxes for unemployment insurance, pensions and old-age care.

To get into the chancellery, Merkel had to give away many of her campaign promises, including a proposal to cut back on the regional wage bargaining that unions prefer and many companies dislike. A pledge to cut top and bottom income tax rates also went overboard. And the Social Democrats won half the Cabinet posts, including foreign affairs and finance.

Still, the overwhelming feeling Tuesday was one of relief.

''It is good that Germany once again has a government that is capable of acting,'' President Horst Koehler said as he formally appointed Merkel's Cabinet.