Germany's Merkel turns caution to strength

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

influential leaders.

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."


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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