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Merkel picks first woman for defense post

BERLIN--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 Sept. 22 election — now that her junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), 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 for openly defying the chancellor on women's rights. She wanted to be foreign minister but it went to the SPD as did her current job, labor minister.

A gynecologist who served as family minister in the first “grand coalition” with the SPD from 2005 to 2009, von der Leyen reportedly turned down Merkel's initial offer to lead the lowly Health Ministry — a risky gambit that paid off.

On Saturday speculation in Berlin was first rampant that she would be interior minister before reports later emerged that she would replace Thomas de Maiziere as defense minister. He was once seen as a successor to Merkel but fell out of favor over a procurement scandal that cost 680 million euros.

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