Merkel picks popular woman ally as defense minister

Sun Dec 15, 2013 3:58pm EST
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By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel named Ursula von der Leyen as her new defense minister on Sunday, a surprising choice that could vault the ambitious ally into the lead as the front runner to one day succeed the chancellor.

Merkel, 59, will begin her third term on Tuesday - three months after winning the September 22 election - now that her junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats, voted on Saturday to join her in a "grand coalition".

Even though Merkel has an aversion to the unexpected, she pulled a rabbit out of her hat in picking the spirited von der Leyen to lead defense, one of the top jobs in her cabinet with a 33-billion-euro budget.

"Those who know her know that she has always had an interest in international issues alongside social policies," Merkel told a news conference. "It's an exciting job filled with challenges that I'm confident she'll master very well."

Merkel has no designated successor and has denied speculation she would step down midway through her next term. But the remarkable turn of events will revive all that if the 55-year-old von der Leyen is successful as Germany's first woman defense minister.

"Those who know von der Leyen know she's got the toughness needed for the difficult job," wrote Bild am Sonntag columnist Michael Backhaus on Sunday. "Merkel showed a lot of courage picking von der Leyen, courage she lacked in the negotiations."

Von der Leyen is a controversial figure in the conservative wing of Merkel's Christian Democrats, in part for openly defying the chancellor on women's rights as labor minister in a riveting battle that erupted five months before the election.

She forced Merkel to make concessions in her opposition to binding quotas for women on company boards by threatening to break ranks and back an opposition bill - seen as an act of betrayal in conservative circles because it would have embarrassed Merkel.   Continued...

German Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen (L) and German Chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Angela Merkel celebrate after first exit polls in the German general election (Bundestagswahl) at the CDU party headquarters in Berlin September 22, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach