By Noah Barkin
TEMPLIN, Germany (Reuters) - Hans-Ulrich Beeskow
still recalls the quiet determination of teenager
Angela Kasner as she swept aside male rivals
to reach the local, regional and then national
math championships in communist East Germany.
"Angela was very focused, very analytical, and
took her time getting to a solution," said the 70-year old
retired math teacher.
"She was highly talented, an absolute exception,
but not a student that stuck out
and sought attention or accolades."
Four decades later, the same low-key drive
that impressed her teachers at the Goethe Schule
in Templin has helped turn the woman now known
as Angela Merkel into one of the world's most
Merkel, 55, appears on track to win a second term
as German chancellor on Sunday after four years
of rule that have won her admirers at home
and abroad, but also confounded some
of Berlin's partners.
On the global political stage, where
macho personalities like France's Nicolas Sarkozy,
Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Merkel's predecessor
Gerhard Schroeder seem the norm,
the shy Lutheran pastor's daughter has made
her name with caution and control.
While many fellow leaders revel in the spotlight,
their private lives often dominating the headlines,
Merkel seems to view the attention that comes
with her status as an unfortunate by-product,
to be tolerated and contained.
Over the past four years, she has been more
moderator than leader of her awkward "grand coalition"
with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD),
dashing early comparisons to hard-driving
former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
When her counterparts in foreign capitals abroad
rushed to announce ambitious measures
to combat the financial crisis last year,
Merkel resisted pressure for quick steps
and bold speeches, taking her time
to think things through before acting.
This go-slowly approach earned her accusations
of weak leadership.
In the heat of the crisis, French President Sarkozy
famously jibed: "While France is working,
Germany is thinking."
But Merkel's reserve has also turned her,
against the odds, into one of Germany's most
popular post-war chancellors -- polls show three
in four Germans believe she is doing
a good job -- and made her a reliable, go-to leader
in Europe for heads of government outside the bloc.
"Merkel has brought a new style to politics after
the machismo of Schroeder and others,"
said Juergen Falter, a political scientist at Mainz University.
Merkel was plucked from obscurity by former
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl after the fall
of the Berlin Wall, and became
the youngest member of his cabinet
in 1991 as minister for women and youth.
In her early years in politics Merkel, who still
uses the name of her first husband,
was seen as the token "Ossi," or easterner,
of the first post-unification government.
This led would-be rivals in her heavily Catholic,
male-dominated conservative party
to underestimate her.
"At first nobody took her seriously,"
Michael Glos, a veteran conservative who
has known Merkel since the 1990s and
served as German economy minister under
her until February, told Reuters.
"But it gradually became clear that
she had both ability and ambition."
Colleagues say her leadership style owes
much to Kohl himself, who was notorious
for sitting out divisive policy debates until
it was clear which way to lean -- a steadiness
known in German as "Sitzfleisch."
But those who knew Merkel as a child believe
her upbringing in the "DDR" also offers
clues to her behavior as a politician and chancellor.
Growing up in Templin, a small town north of Berlin
surrounded by rolling hills and picturesque lakes,
Merkel and her family were viewed as suspect
by the communist authorities because
of her father's religious role.
As a result, she was forced to maintain a clear
separation between her life at home and at school,
where her parents urged young Angela and
her siblings to keep a low profile.
Bodo Ihrke, who was in class with Merkel from
the first grade through secondary school,
says this experience shaped the cautious,
controlled approach that she exhibits to this day.
"It does remind me of school days," said Ihrke,
now a local Social Democrat (SPD) politician.
"This controlled nature, it was and is
her signature trait."
QUIET OVER BOLD
With the election looming, some in the media have
speculated that Merkel's cautious leadership over
the past four years, notably on the economic front,
may be a product of her
uneasy partnership with the SPD.
Last week's Economist magazine urged
German voters to "set Angela free" from
her grand coalition and back
a center-right government that would allow
her to fully exercise her leadership potential.
"The hope is that it is less her own nature
that has stopped her from putting the case
for more reform, than her imprisonment
with her SPD partners," the magazine wrote
in its lead article.
But those that know her well say it would be wrong
to expect dramatic changes in the "small steps"
approach she has used since 2005.
Even if she does seal a coalition with the business-friendly
Free Democrats (FDP), she will not suddenly
turn into a German version of Thatcher.
"Everyone has their own character, their own
leadership style and that doesn't change,"
said a close adviser to Merkel,
who requested anonymity.
"Would she be different in another coalition?
I would say not.
She is someone who prefers quiet to bold,
who sees things in shades of grey,
rather than black and white.
"You can see this as a weakness and accuse her
of thinking too long, but it is who she is
and it has proven effective."
(Additional reporting by Oliver Denzer;
Editing by Sara Ledwith)
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