Friday, September 08, 2006

Rice squeezed between Two Iron Ladies

Last week, Forbes magazine published its annual list of the world’s most powerful women. This year German Chancellor Angela Merkel has replaced US State Secretary Condoleezza Rice who held the ‘title’ for the previous two years. The index is based on visibility in the media as well as economic impact. Merkel did not have any ranking in the Forbes top 100 index in 2005. As well as Rice dropping one place, so too did the number 3 Chinese vice-premier Wu Yi.

Although Merkel was born in Hamburg in West Germany, she grew up in the former DDR. She is therefore not only the first female Chancellor of Germany; she is the first East German chancellor too. Her father was a Lutheran pastor whose parish was 50km north of Berlin. As a student, she was a member of the compulsory communist youth movement Free German Youth. In the 1970s she graduated from the University of Leipzig with a doctorate in physics and worked in quantum chemistry. Her involvement in politics started after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

She joined a new party “Demokratischer Aufbruch” (Democratic Awakening) and she stood in East Germany’s one and only free election in 1990. Lothar de Maizière was elected the country’s first post-communist Prime Minister and held the role for six months until the East was reunited with the West in October 1990. Merkel’s party merged with the Western Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and she was elected into the combined parliament in December 1990. She was appointed Minister for Women and Youth in Helmut Kohl's cabinet. Her background in the former GDR has served her well in post-reunification politics and she speaks English and Russian fluently. When Kohl was defeated in the 1998 election, she was appointed secretary-general of the CDU. She became party chair in 2000 after a finance scandal took the scalp of then-incumbent Wolfgang Schäuble. In the 2002 election, the Opposition was led by CDU’s sister party the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU) and leader Edmund Stoiber squandered a large poll lead to lose to Gerhard Schröder. After the defeat, Merkel became leader of the conservative opposition in the Bundestag.

In 2003, Merkel attracted criticism in Germany for her support of the US invasion of Iraq. She attracted the label “Iron Lady” alluding to similarities with former British PM Margaret Thatcher. However the comparison is superficial. Merkel is no welfare reformer, plus she is constrained by Germany’s electoral system. Josef Joffe, editor and publisher of the weekly paper Die Zeit, explained why: "Germany is a corporatist construction, with power finely balanced among society's forces. It is consensus-bound and thus veto-driven."

Meanwhile in China, Wu Yi has also attracted the "iron lady" label. She is one of four vice-premiers of the State Council, which is the country’s chief administrative authority. Wu is 67 years old and has been a member of the Chinese Communist party for 44 years. She graduated from the Beijing Petroleum Institute with a degree in petroleum engineering and spent much of her career as a petroleum technician. She was elected deputy mayor of Beijing in 1988 and was in the role at the time of the Tiananmen Square Massacre a year later. It was she who persuaded coal-workers not to strike after some of their colleagues had been among the two to three thousand who were killed when the tanks rolled in to crush the protest on 4 June. Through the nineties she was steadily promoted through the ranks from deputy to full minister and was a member of several key decision making committees. Wu was a protégé of Zhu Rongji and when Rongji became Chinese premier in 1998, he appointed her onto the 50-strong State Council.

There her abilities were quickly recognised. Wu helped hammer out five trade agreements with Russia in 1999 and oversaw delicate negotiations for China's accession to the World Trade Organization. She was appointed Health Minister during the 2003 SARS scare and earned the tag "goddess of transparency" from Time Magazine for her leadership role during the crisis. She remains the only female figure in China's core of political power.

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