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Germany to have early elections

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/22/international/europe/22cnd-germany.html Schröder Calls for National Elections By RICHARD BERNSTEIN Published: May 22, 2005
    Message 1 of 1 , May 22, 2005
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/22/international/europe/22cnd-germany.html

      Schr�der Calls for National Elections

      By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
      Published: May 22, 2005

      BERLIN, May 22 - In a surprise move, Chancellor
      Gerhard Schr�der called for national elections to be
      held a year earlier than scheduled, after a shattering
      defeat today for his Social Democratic Party in local
      elections in Germany's biggest state, North
      Rhine-Westphalia.

      "With this bitter election result for my party in
      North Rhine-Westphalia, the political support for our
      reforms to continue has been called into question,"
      Mr. Schr�der said in a brief statement, referring to
      the economic reform program on which he has long
      staked his chancellorship.

      Mr. Schr�der, citing his "responsibility and duty as
      German chancellor," said he would ask the federal
      president, Horst K�hler, to arrange for new elections
      by this fall. In doing so, he became the first
      incumbent chancellor in postwar Germany to propose
      early elections.

      The decision to seek early elections was clearly a
      response to the Social Democrats' continued declining
      fortunes, capped by its widely expected loss of North
      Rhine-Westphalia. The state, a heavily industrialized
      region where the party had held power for 39 years,
      was taken by the party's main national rival, the
      moderate-right Christian Democratic Union.

      Results as of this evening indicated that the
      Christian Democrats would get slightly more votes than
      the Social Democratic Party and its national coalition
      partner, the Greens, together.

      "This is a historic victory," Angela Merkel, the head
      of the Christian Democratic Union, told a cheering
      crowd in D�sseldorf, the state capital, before Mr.
      Schr�der called for new elections.

      "This clearly shows that Red-Green governments are
      unable to solve the burning problems of this country,
      such as unemployment and a sluggish economy," she
      said, using the common term for the socialist-Green
      partnership. "And it would be of great benefit if we
      could also assume responsibility on federal level
      after the next national election in 2006."

      Soon after Ms. Merkel's victory speech, the Social
      Democratic Party chairman, Fritz M�ntefering, gave the
      first indication that he and Mr. Schr�der, who met
      this afternoon, had chosen to seek to go to the polls
      early.

      "The chancellor and I have decided to propose that we
      aim for parliamentary elections this fall," Mr.
      M�ntefering said. "Schr�der is the chancellor and the
      candidate for chancellor."

      "We want to fight," Mr. M�ntefering said.

      Ms. Merkel subsequently said she would agree to hold
      elections early.

      "If they consider it right, then it is good for the
      country," she said on German television.

      Mr. Schr�der, who is in the middle of his second term,
      is seen as a tough and adept political fighter and
      campaigner who, despite low approval ratings, would
      seem to have a good chance to win a national contest
      if there is still time enough left for at least a
      modest economic upturn.

      But in proposing that elections be held this fall
      rather than in 2006, the Social Democratic leadership
      seems to be calculating that the longer it waits, the
      smaller its chances of staying in power will be.

      "It's the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in football,"
      Gary Smith, director of the American Academy in
      Berlin, said of the decision. "It's a last-ditch
      desperation measure."

      The Social Democrats have been floundering for many
      months, suffering not just from low approval ratings
      but also internal conflicts between factions that
      approve of Mr. Schr�der's economic reform efforts and
      others, notably the labor unions, that oppose them.

      The reforms have cut social welfare benefits,
      including unemployment compensation, but have not
      resulted in an improvement in Germany's dire
      unemployment picture. More than 12 percent of the work
      force is jobless, and this has particularly harmed Mr.
      Schr�der's standing in the party. Indeed, as the
      election in North Rhine-Westphalia approached, many
      political analysts said the Social Democrats would
      lose it, not because the Christian Democrats are
      popular there but because the usual Social Democratic
      supporters would stay home.

      The midevening results in the state, which could
      change somewhat as the final votes are counted, gave
      the Christian Democrats 44.7 percent of the vote. The
      Social Democrats received 37.4 percent, the Greens had
      6.1 percent, and the small rightist Free Democratic
      Party, which will almost certainly enter into a
      coalition with the Christian Democrats to govern the
      state, won 6.1 percent.

      In the weeks leading up the election, Mr. M�ntefering,
      the Social Democratic chairman, had won many of the
      headlines in Germany by adopting anticapitalist
      rhetoric, criticizing companies for firing workers to
      earn higher profits and, most notably, likening
      venture capitalists and investment banks to "locusts"
      descending on a crop.

      Mr. M�ntefering's line was interpreted by many as an
      attempt to reinvigorate the party's working class base
      of support, but it was also widely criticized as a
      desperate tactical move smacking of scapegoatism.

      The decision now to seek early elections is being seen
      here either as another change in tactics by a party
      that is in the midst of an identity crisis, or perhaps
      as a sign of impatience by Mr. Schr�der himself.

      "North Rhine-Westphalia was always the heartland of
      the Social Democrats, so they had to figure out now
      what is the best way to go, and not to have a year and
      a half in power without any real possibility to
      govern," said Uwe Jun, a political analyst from the
      Trier University.

      "What mattered in this is the personal character of
      Schr�der, who is not a patient type of political
      leader," he said. "He's always someone who takes
      surprising steps and isn't the sort of politician who
      sits in his chair and waits."
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