By Associated Press
Angela Merkel, the challenger running for the chancellorship, advocates U.S.-friendly policies.
BERLIN - Germany is headed into national elections that could usher in major changes: If conservative challenger Angela Merkel beats Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the result would likely be closer ties to Washington, especially on issues such as Iraq.
It could also weaken the Franco-German power axis at the heart of "Old Europe" that has bedeviled the Bush administration.
Many think Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, will bring back some of the outlook of her onetime political patron, former conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl, who valued strong U.S. relations.
She has pledged while campaigning for the Sept. 18 elections to "put Europe's relationship with the USA back on a sensible footing" and to "reinvigorate" U.S.-German relations.
But she has also kept a low profile on foreign relations, knowing that Schroeder's strident opposition to the war in Iraq helped him narrowly win re-election in 2002 and remains a popular stance.
On Iraq, she cautiously says only that she will continue Schroeder's help in training Iraqi police outside the country. She gave an interviewer a curt answer - "Yes" - when asked if she could be counted on to keep German troops out of Iraq.
Still, few doubt the 51-year-old former physicist would get along better with President Bush, given her conservative party background and the more positive statements she has made about the United States in the past.
"There will be significant changes in style as well as in substance," said Jan-Friedrich Kallmorgen, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
"Schroeder remains just persona non grata in certain circles, especially the White House. There cannot be a normal relationship while he's chancellor.... Her DNA is more trans-Atlantic."
She and her circle, including foreign policy advisers Wolfgang Schaeuble and Friedbert Pflueger, "tend to view the United States more as a benevolent hegemony."
For its part, Washington has made little secret of its preference for Merkel. When Schaeuble visited Washington, he got time with Bush as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley.
Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic union, is leading with about 42 percent in the polls, followed by Schroeder's Social Democrats at about 34 percent. That in itself does not guarantee victory: She would have to put together a majority in Parliament, possibly in coalition with the smaller Free Democrats.
If those two parties fall short, she might have to agree to a so-called grand coalition with Schroeder's Social Democrats that would give her less of a free hand, though Schroeder would almost certainly not take part himself.
Such a coalition has only happened once on a national level in Germany, from 1966 to 1969. Some political analysts fear that such a government would be unstable and lead to paralysis in economic policy. In either case, Merkel would replace Schroeder, 61, as chancellor, becoming the first woman and the first eastern German to head the government.
In one of her most significant campaign statements, Merkel suggested loosening the Paris-Berlin partnership that opposed U.S. attempts to get a U.N. resolution authorizing the Iraq invasion. She also rejects the view that Europe should be seen as a counterweight to the United States.
In an autobiography, she recounted that while she living behind the Iron Curtain she was resigned to the fact "that I would only fly to the United States at age 60." She made the trip in her 30s in 1991 as Kohl's women's minister after the collapse of communism, meeting then-President George Bush and former President Ronald Reagan.
In 2003, she visited Washington on the eve of the Iraq war and criticized Schroeder for opposing it at all costs, saying that undermining the threat of force made Saddam Hussein less likely to comply with U.N. pressure. When asked later if she was disappointed in Bush after no weapons of mass destruction were found, she said, "No."
It's less clear how much she will do to satisfy another U.S. desire - that Germany and Europe find ways to promote more economic growth through structural changes in their highly regulated economies. She has vowed to cut Germany's jobless rate but has left many parts of her program vague and has made it clear she intends to reform, not dismantle, the expensive welfare state.
In fact, a key part of her program is an increase in value-added tax, which would offset a cut in payroll taxes aimed at making it easier to hire people and cut unemployment.
During a televised debate in Germany on Sept. 4, Merkel accused Schroeder of saddling the country with record-high unemployment and a faltering economy. Schroeder defended his government, saying it had done its best to streamline Germany's welfare state and to overhaul its labor market.
Merkel kept the focus on the chancellor's economic record, noting that the number of jobless rose to more than 5-million during Schroeder's term, a record for the post-World War II period. The Christian Democratic Union has made creating jobs its top priority.
"You can't be satisfied with the situation in this country," Merkel said to Schroeder in one of the debate's few confrontational moments. "I don't see anything in your program to address this."
Though Merkel seemed more self-assured than she has been in other such encounters, she spoke with little of the ease or humor of Schroeder, an accomplished television performer.
He put her on the defensive by questioning the policies of her chief economic adviser, Paul Kirchhof, who advocates replacing Germany's complex tax system with a flat tax. Merkel described Kirchhof as having a vision.
"It isn't a vision," Schroeder replied. "It's unjust."
Asked how Germany should respond to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Merkel said it should provide aid, then promptly turned back to domestic issues. Schroeder, on the other hand, noted that Bush had described the rescue effort as "unacceptable."
"For people in an emergency situation, we don't need a weak state, but a strong state instead," he said. "If everything is privatized, we have to ask ourselves if we have done the right thing."
Still, not all will be smooth sailing between Merkel and Bush if she wins.
She opposes European Union membership for Turkey, which Bush supports. Merkel argues that taking in such a large Muslim country - its population soon to overtake Germany's, which has more than 80-million citizens - would overextend the union. She says the EU should offer a "privileged partnership" short of full membership instead.
The chancellor said Merkel "misunderstood" the geopolitical importance of binding Turkey to Europe, to prevent it from the possibility of sliding into Islamic militancy. It was the same mistake, Schroeder said, that she had made in not backing his decision to rebuff the United States on Iraq.
But few people expect Merkel's stance on Turkey would derail membership negotiations set to start in October, which - as they are expected to last for years - could well survive a Merkel chancellorship.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.