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Last Updated: Monday, 19 September 2005, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Where did it go wrong for Merkel?
By Clare Murphy
BBC News, Berlin

Merkel poster
Mrs Merkel's blunt talk may have put off some voters
It was a clearly shaken Angela Merkel who stepped up on stage at conservative headquarters on Sunday evening.

This was the moment she had expected to be giving her victory speech, welcoming Germany to a new era of centre-right rule with her at the helm as the country's first female chancellor.

Instead, she had led the Christian Democrats (CDU) to the second worst result in their history. Emerging only marginally ahead of Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD), the party she was meant to trounce, the majority needed for a right-wing coalition had eluded her.

Prominent CDU members are not conducting the post-mortem in private. The blame game has already begun - and Mrs Merkel is unlikely to escape.

Right from the outset, the rather reserved Mrs Merkel was always going to struggle to match the charismatic affability of the blokish Mr Schroeder.

Straight talking

"Gerhard on Tour" was truly a sight to behold.

Arriving at a campaign rally, the chancellor would meet and greet his fans before strolling up to the podium, throwing off his jacket, and warming up his crowd.

She is a little bit Margaret Thatcher and a little bit Tony Blair

Mrs Merkel may have tried to soften her image for this campaign with pale suits and a feathered haircut, but at heart she remained a politician who spurned small talk.

She would get straight up on stage and straight to the point: Germany's problems and what needs to be done.

It is not so much the charm deficit as this bluntness that is being held up for scrutiny.

Mr Schroeder, who has failed to significantly reduce Germany's doggedly high unemployment rate despite his controversial Hartz reform programme, kept his message suitably vague - stressing values rather than concrete plans.

Mrs Merkel, however, went in for the unpleasant details.

No thanks

She planned for instance to raise VAT by two percentage points. The money would be used to pay for a reduction in German employers' high social security costs, and thus potentially encourage them to take on more staff.

Such a measure, which people realised would hit their pockets directly, was unpopular.

Edmund Stoiber and Angela Merkel
Edmund Stoiber (left) faces blame for his comments about Easterners
Indeed, it was almost as unloved as Mrs Merkel's shadow finance minister came to be.

Paul Kirchhof - or the Professor from Heidelberg, as Mr Schroeder slyly alluded to him - is the key name being bandied about as CDU soul-searching gets under way.

It was he who mooted the prospect of introducing a flat tax in Germany - seized on by the SPD as evidence that the CDU would punish the poor and reward the rich.

The revenue lost by undercharging millionaires, they claimed, would be recouped by closing tax loopholes which currently benefit lower earners. "What's social about that?" Mr Schroeder would demand.

It was this theme which may well have helped the SPD close the gap in recent weeks, scaring voters away from the CDU, analysts say.

And yet it was never clear to what extent Mr Kirchhof was expressing firm CDU policy when he expounded taxation, or simply thinking aloud.

"Some people like Kirchhof don't seem to know when they should say something and when they should just be quiet," said prominent CDU politician Elmar Brok.

"At the end of the day, the fear of Kirchhof was greater than the fear of Hartz."

Unhelpful ally

Mr Kirchhof may take some comfort in the fact that he is not the only one being hauled over the coals.

Edmund Stoiber, who runs the southern state of Bavaria, failed in his bid to unseat Mr Schroeder in the last elections. He is now being blamed over this latest political debacle after some unhelpful comments about Easterners early on in the campaign.

Gerhard Schroeder
Gerhard Schroeder has been all smiles since the election result
Suggesting that people from the East were less intelligent than their Western counterparts, he declared before a Bavarian audience that these "frustrated" voters should not be allowed to determine the outcome of election.

Unfortunately for the CDU, Easterners often do. Lacking historical loyalties to the main Western parties, they are far more fickle and switch their vote without a second thought when displeased.

To make matters worse for the main parties, this year, a new Left party was ready to accommodate angry voters.

"Stoiber's comments really damaged us in the East," said Steffan Flath, a CDU minister in the state of Saxony, accusing the Bavarian of displaying "half-hearted and unconvincing" support for Mrs Merkel.

Wrong man for job

The irony is that initially it was hoped Mrs Merkel's Eastern heritage would stand her in good stead when it came to winning the East, where 16 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, stark differences with the West remain.

But instead she has suffered the worst of both worlds: mistrusted by some Westerners because of her provenance, disliked by some Easterners because they feel she has renounced it.

It is ultimately hard to establish to what extent the fact that Mrs Merkel is a woman from the East contributed to the CDU's disappointing showing.

But one poll at least suggests 9% of voters - the difference between a majority and a hung parliament - would have voted differently if the conservative candidate had been a man from the West.

Mrs Merkel's debacle is likely to provide all parties with some food for thought.

Watch Schroeder and Merkel claim victory

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