By Michael Shields
VIENNA (Reuters) - Maria Fekter has been called the "Witch of the South" and even described herself once "as the only man in the Austrian government", but no one says she's boring.
Austria's finance minister is a blunderbuss of a politician, direct and unafraid to speak her mind when others hold their tongues. Her frankness, especially about the euro zone crisis, has upset some important men such as the Italian prime minister and the Eurogroup chairman.
But Fekter has developed a thick skin in rising from small-town politics to become Austria's most powerful woman. No longer do critics dismiss her as a blue-eyed blonde or a country bumpkin.
"I have been in Austrian national politics for 22 years and you learn how to deal with criticism ... sometimes very invidious criticism," she told Reuters in a recent interview. "You are treated more brutally as a woman than men would be, but I can deal with this."
Fekter, who sits on the right of her People's Party, wants to be remembered for whipping Austria's finances into shape, reforming taxes and helping to stabilize the euro zone.
Her straight talk has strengthened Austria's voice in European politics. And with elections due next year she will be a major campaigner for her struggling conservatives, one who is already touted in media as a possible People's Party leader.
Fekter, 56, has a track record of speaking out of turn or undiplomatically, although she often complains that opponents misquote her or deliberately take her comments out of context.
In June she told a TV interviewer that high borrowing costs might make Italy need a bailout, a comment that Prime Minister Mario Monti called "completely inappropriate".
She suggested in February that Greece's problems could force it out of the European Union. A month later Fekter also infuriated Eurogroup chief Jean Claude Juncker - who chairs the meetings of euro zone finance ministers that she attends - by briefing media on a deal to raise the bloc's financial firewall before he had announced it.
She later apologized, then complicated things by saying Juncker was upset because he was suffering from kidney stones, a comment Austrian media criticized as an invasion of his privacy.
The incidents made Brussels officials joke about being "Fektered", while a Munich newspaper came up with the "witch of the south" label for the first female finance minister of Germany's southern neighbor.
However, she has also lined up with her euro zone peers in supporting bailouts for the bloc's struggling member states, drawing accusations from Austrian parties to her right of treachery and squandering taxpayers' money.
Maria Theresia Mayr was born in Attnang-Puchheim, a small town in the largely rural province of Upper Austria, to a well-off family with a gravel and construction materials business. She acknowledges being a rambunctious child, the only girl in a pack of brothers and boy cousins.
Kurt Palm, a writer and filmmaker who went to school for three years with Fekter, remembered her as a born conservative who nevertheless kept tabs on rival ideologies. "She was always interested in politics, as shown by her subscribing to the PLOP communist newspaper I helped put out," he said.
Fekter's plans to study art changed abruptly when her older brother died in a car accident and the family turned to her as the next generation to run the business. She studied law and business to prepare and became managing partner in 1986, gaining real-world experience she often cites in policy debates.
That was the same year she entered local politics. Four years later she was elected to parliament, quickly becoming a state secretary for tourism in the economy ministry.
She thrives on rubbing shoulders with voters, her folksy style shining through when her standard German lapses into broad regional dialect as she warms to a subject in speeches.
As a young MP she met Terezija Stoisits from the opposition Greens party, also elected in 1990, who said Fekter hasn't changed in decades and is the same in private as in public.
"She has a very direct manner that sometimes is a great advantage. She does not pretend. Or you can put it more negatively and say she is not very diplomatic," Stoisits said.
Even political opponents say Fekter is a straight shooter, able to cut deals with a handshake and then back them up.
Asked what it is like to work with her in the cabinet, where Fekter's party governs in an uneasy coalition with the Social Democrats, Labour Minister Rudolf Hundstorfer laughed and said: "I am a bad example because I get along with her very well."
Fekter says her ability to grasp complex issues, strip them down to the essentials and present them in clear terms is what makes her a popular interview subject for media.
She made the comment about being the only man in the Austrian cabinet after getting an invitation to an event addressed to "Herr Fekter". While this was probably a mistake rather than deliberate, she took it as a slight even though she is no leading figure in the women's liberation movement.
"The older I get the more feminist I become, but I am not a women's libber in the classical sense," she told Reuters.
Fekter never appears in public with her husband Martin, and rarely with their grown daughter.
Made interior minister in 2008, she took a hard line on crime and immigration, helping to stake out her party's line amid a resurgent right wing. She became finance minister last year when her predecessor resigned due to illness.
It is a job she says she relishes, letting her shape things like former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whom Fekter admires as a gutsy reformer and rare example of a successful woman in politics.
"The political philosophy of Margaret Thatcher appealed to me so much because she really changed Britain and transformed it from an ailing country into an economic power," she said.
She was coy on whether she might pursue an international job after her domestic career. "I have always taken on the duties assigned to me and performed them with passion and commitment and thus I will not rule out anything at all," she said.
"I have never homed in on (jobs) and nevertheless now I am at the top as finance minister. I will stick to this strategy."
(editing by David Stamp)