Angela Merkel may be the most improbable candidate for chancellor that Germany has seen, but her victory in tomorrow's general election does not look nearly so unlikely. Barring a major political upset, the 51-year-old head of the conservative opposition is tipped to unseat incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to become the first woman and the first person from Germany's formerly communist east to lead Europe's largest country. But perhaps unsurprisingly for someone at the helm of a political party dominated by western German men - the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) - the reserved Dr Merkel plays down everything that makes her unique as a candidate. 'She's made a point of never emphasising what she is and where she's come from,' said Jacqueline Boysen, Dr Merkel's biographer. 'But it's exceptional what she's achieved. Unlike most eastern Germans, she has thrived in western structures.' Mentored by former chancellor Helmut Kohl and often compared with Britain's Margaret Thatcher, Dr Merkel's rise to the pinnacle of German politics has been as speedy as it has been unexpected. Joining the CDU only after German reunification in 1990, she previously had worked as a scientist in East Berlin. Dr Merkel hopes to take power just as Germany is struggling through a deep economic crisis. Mr Schroeder has tried to get the world's third-biggest economy back on track, but his unpopular reform agenda has so far failed to address the country's record unemployment - more than 11 per cent - and its chronically weak growth. She has promised to overhaul Germany's bloated welfare state and create jobs, but few observers peg her as a radical reformer. 'She's no German Maggie Thatcher,' said Bernhard Wessels, a professor of political science at Berlin's Free University. 'She just can't operate that way in Germany.' Born in the northern port city of Hamburg to a left-wing protestant pastor, Dr Merkel grew up in the sleepy town of Templin, 90km north of Berlin after her parents moved to East Germany in 1954. With the communist authorities sceptical of her family's church ties, the fluent Russian and English speaker was forced to excel at an early age to get ahead. She shied away from politically sensitive subjects, instead choosing to study physics at the University of Leipzig. 'She grew up in a dictatorship so she always differentiates between what she thinks and what she says,' Ms Boysen said. 'She is very intelligent, capable of learning and very pragmatic.' Such attributes have served Dr Merkel well in the rough and tumble world of politics. After serving in Dr Kohl's cabinet with portfolios covering family and environmental policy, she took a leading role in the CDU after Mr Schroeder's centre-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens ousted the conservatives in 1998. When the CDU later became embroiled in a party financing scandal centred on Dr Kohl, it was Dr Merkel's unsentimental decision to call for a complete break with his legacy that helped her eventually become party leader in 2001. 'I've led the CDU on a course of modernisation that has made us fit for the 21st century. I believe I can do exactly the same for Germany,' Dr Merkel said in the sole debate with Mr Schroeder that went to air on September 4. Still, many Christian Democrats have never been completely at ease under the leadership of an eastern woman. During the last general election in 2002, Dr Merkel was forced to allow the premier of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, to take on Mr Schroeder. But Mr Schroeder's decision to bring forward the election by one year after his Social Democratic Party was routed in a state poll in May encouraged conservatives to quickly rally around her as their chancellor candidate. Although she has polished her performance on the campaign trail, it has not been gaffe-free and by most accounts she was handily beaten by the media-savvy Mr Schroeder in their televised debate. For many Germans, the childless, twice-married ex-scientist remains a cool and uninspiring choice, creating the possibility that a resurgent Mr Schroeder could yet force her into a so-called 'grand coalition' with the Social Democrats. A newly formed socialist group known as the Left Party also threatens to siphon off votes, particularly in the economically depressed east. Despite growing up in East Germany, Dr Merkel has been unable to connect with the region's voters. Instead, many feel she has denied her roots in order to have a successful western-style political career.