Angela Merkel, who became head of Germany's opposition Christian-Democrats five years ago, will cap a meteoric rise if she becomes the country's first female Chancellor after Sunday's general election.

The once little-known physicist, who is 51, has made free-market reforms and lowering an 11.4 percent unemployment rate her priorities for Europe's largest economy.

In foreign policy, she also favors improving ties with the United States, which were strained over Germany's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Raised in the former Communist East Germany, Ms. Merkel joined Christian-Democratic-led cabinets under Chancellor Helmut Kohl after German unification in 1990.

She quickly rose to the top of the Christian-Democratic ranks after Mr. Kohl's 1998 election defeat and a party financing scandal toppled several of her superiors.

Ms. Merkel is married to a chemist and has no children. She is known as a shy and private person - but also as a ruthless politician who has sidelined adversaries on her way to the top.

Some information for this report provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.