German president must face rare political decision

Koehler to answer request to dissolve parliament


BERLIN - For the next few weeks, the most closely watched political figure in Germany will be neither the embattled chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, nor his potential successor, Angela Merkel.

It will be a brainy, plain-spoken economist, Horst Koehler, who is the president of Germany - a job that until last week consisted mainly of ceremonial chores like handing out trophies after soccer matches or chatting with Queen Elizabeth at state dinners.

On Friday, Schroeder maneuvered to lose a vote of confidence in parliament. He then asked the president to dissolve parliament, which would clear the way for elections in September. Koehler has until July 21 to decide whether to grant the request.

For a man in a largely nonpolitical job, it is the most political of decisions - one that could put Germany on a different path at a time of political upheaval in Europe.

The decision he faces is made immensely more complicated by the fact that if he says "yes," his ruling could be overturned by the German constitutional court.

Koehler, 62, said little after hearing from Schroeder, except to affirm that the issues raised by the vote are "complex" and that he may take the full three weeks to weigh them.

"I know he takes it extremely seriously," said Dieter Grimm, a legal scholar and former judge on the constitutional court. "He is devoted to the German constitution. He doesn't want to make a mistake."

Like many other legal experts, Grimm says Schroeder does not appear to have met the constitutional test for dissolving parliament: that he is no longer able to govern properly because he has lost so much support.

But the pressure on Koehler to go along will be intense - from the chancellor; from Merkel, who backed Koehler for president and who stands a good chance of becoming the first woman to serve as chancellor; from German businesspeople, who see the election as an elixir for the torpid economy; even from ordinary Germans, who like the idea of casting ballots soon.

That he might take the full three weeks to make a decision would not surprise people who worked with Koehler in his last job, at the International Monetary Fund. As the fund's managing director, he had a reputation for looking at issues from every conceivable angle - sometimes to the frustration of his staff - before reaching a decision.

Once he made his decision, however, Koehler was resolute, even if the judgment was unpopular, as was the case in December 2001, when the fund cut off lending to Argentina during a deep economic crisis.

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