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Angela Merkel - Germany's first woman chancellor?

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Berlin (dpa) - Angela Merkel is bidding to become the first woman, and the first citizen of the former communist East, to lead a modern and reunified Germany.

Her rise from being an obscure physicist in East Berlin to leading Germany's conservatives, her pledge for major economic reform and her no-nonsense dress sense have led to comparison with Margaret Thatcher.

Many regard Merkel, 51, as the best hope to cut unemployment of 11.4 per cent, but her conservative-liberal alliance has seen its convincing lead in the polls shrink as polling day approaches.

The daughter of an East German Protestant pastor, Merkel spent her first 35 years in the hardline communist state, growing up in the village of Templin north of Berlin.

Her father, although committed to socialism, had regular visits from the Stasi secret police who regarded him as a dissident.

Merkel concedes she was not herself a dissident, joining the communist Free German Youth movement to ensure admission to university, but she insists her cooperation with the regime went no further.

Her church background and outspoken nature meant many doors were closed and she became a researcher after studying at the University of Leipzig and at the elite East Berlin Academy of Sciences.

When she applied for a university job in 1978, the Stasi accused her of illegally listening to West German radio and tried to recruit her to spy for them.

Merkel's home-spun appearance belies a steely determination to rise to the top.

Like her mentor, former chancellor Helmut Kohl, Merkel has been constantly underestimated. And, like Kohl, she is marked by a strong sense of mistrust of almost everyone outside her family and a small group of political allies.

Merkel has accepted barbs about her appearance with humour, but has also worked on her public image, having her hair restyled by a star hairdresser and adopting designer outfits.

Elected a Christian Democrat (CDU) member of the first pan-German parliament in 1990, she was appointed to Kohl's cabinet in 1991, the chancellor referring to her patronisingly as "mein Maedchen" (my girl).

She served as minister for women and youth affairs from 1991 to 1994 and environment minister from 1994 to 1998, when Gerhard Schroeder and his SDP-Greens coalition put an end to 16 years of Kohl.

Kohl and the CDU were immediately embroiled in a slush fund scandal that outraged Merkel, who took the lead in criticising the man who had done so much for her career.

Vowing to clean up the mess, Merkel thrust experienced male rivals aside to rise to the top of the party.

But she was forced to stand aside as CDU candidate in the 2002 elections in favour of Edmund Stoiber, head of the CDU's sister party in Bavaria, who was narrowly defeated by Schroeder.

The CDU subsequently gained ground in a series of state elections, securing a stranglehold in the upper chamber of parliament and forcing Schroeder to call elections a year early.

Merkel's international experience is limited to her meetings with international leaders as head of the German opposition. Her English is reported to have improved over recent years, and her Russian is also good.

Defying the strong current of opinion in Germany against the war in Iraq - which helped Schroeder to re-election on an anti-war ticket in 2002 - Merkel backed U.S. President George W. Bush, while being careful never to call for German troops to be sent.

Merkel is married to a chemistry professor, Joachim Sauer, who avoids the limelight. They have no children.

Copyright 2005 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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