Merkel joins select club

Published November 23, 2005

BERLIN: On becoming Germany’s new chancellor on Tuesday, Angela Merkel joined a club of women leaders whose members can still literally be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Along with Helen Clark of New Zealand, Begum Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh, Luisa Diogo of Mozambique and Maria do Carmo Silveira of tiny Sao Tome and Principe, all prime ministers, Merkel is henceforth one of only five women worldwide to head their country’s government.

Even if one throws in the small group of women who are currently serving as elected heads of state, and then adds Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is widely expected to be appointed president of Liberia following elections there, the fingers of two hands would still suffice.

The 10 countries which currently have a woman as either prime minister or elected head of state thereby amount to just over one in twenty of the world’s 193 sovereign states.

The list of prime ministers:

BANGLADESH: Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of a president assassinated in 1981, is serving her second term as prime minister of Bangladesh. Begum Zia, who is 60, served an initial term from 1991 to 1996 and was then re-elected in October 2001.

GERMANY: Angela Merkel, 51, became Germany’s first woman chancellor on Tuesday, at the head of a “grand coalition” bringing together her conservative CDU-CSU alliance and the social democratic SPD of outgoing chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Merkel, a trained physicist, is also the first German leader to hail from the former East Germany.

MOZAMBIQUE: Luisa Diogo was appointed the first female prime minister of her southern African country in February 2004. She is 47.

NEW ZEALAND: Helen Clark, 55, became prime minister in December 1999. However she could not claim a first, as she succeeded Jenny Shipley, the first woman to head a New Zealand government.

SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE: Maria do Carmo Silveira was promoted from being head of her tiny west African country’s central bank to the post of prime minister in June this year. Do Carmo Silveira is the youngest of the women currently serving as heads of government, having been born in 1960.

Present, and likely future, female heads of state:

FINLAND: Tarja Halonen, 61, became the first woman president of Finland in February 2000.

IRELAND: Mary McAleese was elected president of the Irish Republic in October 1997, succeeding another woman head of state, Mary Robinson. McAleese, 54, was re-elected in October last year.

LATVIA: Vaira Vike-Freiberga, 67, was sworn in as president of Latvia in July 1999, thereby becoming the first woman to lead a country in Eastern Europe.

LIBERIA: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was credited with a clear win in the second round of Liberia’s presidential election on November 8. She is widely expected to be appointed president of her war-shattered country, making her the first woman ever elected to lead an African state.

PHILIPPINES: Gloria Arroyo, 57, has been president of her country since January 2001.

The history of women as heads of modern states is very recent: it was only in 1960 that Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first to lead a country, Sri Lanka.

One woman who often springs to mind when talk turn to women politicians is Margaret Thatcher, who served as prime minister of Britain from May 1979 to November 1990. She thereby became not only Britain’s first woman premier, but also the longest serving one in the country’s history.—AFP

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