Germany to have early elections
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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."