Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Merkel ranked world's most powerful woman

Chancellor Angela Merkel was voted the world's most powerful woman for the second year in a row by the US business magazine Forbes yesterday – but Germans hardly batted an eyelid. Germany's first female leader managed to beat the American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, into fourth place, leaving Wu Yi, China's vice-premier, in second position, and Ho Ching, the head of Singapore's Temasek holdings, third on the list of the world's 100 most powerful women

In its explanation, Forbes said Ms Merkel had impressed with her "cool leadership" at the G8 meeting of world leaders and the European Union summit, both of which were held in Germany this summer.

"First she stuck to her principles by getting G8 leaders to agree to significant cuts in carbon emissions. She later corralled European countries into an agreement on a treaty to replace the EU constitution," the magazine said.

In Germany, however, the fact that Ms Merkel's status as most-powerful-woman-in-the-world ranked near the bottom of the order on the lunchtime news came as little surprise. She was already being feted as "Ms World" by Germany's popular press in June.

Since almost the beginning of this year, 53-year-old Ms Merkel has enjoyed popularity ratings almost unprecedented for a post-war German leader. Recent polls have shown that some 70 per cent of Germans think she is doing a good job as Chancellor.

Part of Ms Merkel's popularity stems from the fact that she heads a grand coalition government comprised of her own conservative Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats – who would normally be her opponents. The alliance has reduced the level of political debate in Germany and ensured that criticism of the Chancellor has been kept to a minimum.

However, since taking office at the end of 2005, Ms Merkel has managed to establish and strengthen her position through a string of important foreign and EU policy successes which have eclipsed her government's shortcomings at home.

First Ms Merkel mended the disastrous relationship with the US she inherited from Gerhard Schröder, her vehemently anti-Iraq war predecessor. She went on to redefine Germany's hitherto uncritical dealings with President Vladimir Putin's government by breaching the issue of Russian human rights abuses. She subsequently brokered an important deal on EU financing at her first European summit as Chancellor.

In environmentalist Germany – where the Green party was in government for seven years until 2005 – her popularity soared earlier this year when, during Germany's EU presidency, she announced ambitious carbon emission reduction targets. As Forbes magazine noted, she crowned this achievement by securing a global agreement on carbon emissions while hosting the G8 summit on Germany's Baltic coast earlier this year.

Ms Merkel's other, equally important attribute is a self-effacing style gained from her upbringing as a Protestant pastor's daughter in Communist East Germany. She is reputedly so genuinely concerned about the environment that all the lamps in her Berlin apartment have been equipped with energy-saving low-voltage bulbs. She also reminds all her staff daily to turn off lights before they go home.

The macho days of the cigar-smoking, Italian-suited Mr Schröder have been replaced by a female leader who is dowdy, but apparently unpretentious, straightforward and convincingly sincere. "It is as if Germany had been waiting for this change of style," wrote Die Zeit in a recent editorial.

Ms Merkel's only shortcoming is that she cannot be made the butt of jokes. Weekly radio and television shows were devoted to mocking her predecessor but, when leading comedians were asked recently to come up with a Merkel joke, they could not.

But she is not without humour. Last month, she was invited to a ceremony in her own office to witness a portrait of her predecessor being hung alongside those of former leaders. "My constituents have been asking me when Schröder would finally be strung up," she quipped. Even Mr Schröder had to laugh.

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