Dead heat in German election

Schroeder, conservative opponent claim victory in parliamentary vote

September 19, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,Sun foreign reporter

LONDON -- Germany's voters left their country in suspense last night, as both Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his conservative opponent claimed victory in parliamentary elections too close to call, leaving hopes for clear policies to fix Europe's largest economy at least temporarily on hold.

The only result from the elections that seemed clear last night was that Schroeder's existing coalition would no longer remain in power, though he could conceivably remain chancellor. Official results showed conservative challenger Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats getting slightly more votes than Schroeder's Social Democrats but failing to win the majority needed to govern, even when combined with her preferred coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats.

Public opinion polls in advance of the election had shown Schroeder closing a once-daunting gap to Merkel, who is seeking to become Germany's first female chancellor. But few analysts expected a dead heat, an outcome that could lead to lengthy negotiations to decide the leadership of the next government.

Whoever prevails will almost certainly lead a fragmented government that would struggle to pass meaningful reform. He or she may also find Germany's stature within Europe compromised, for lack of strong support at home.

Schroeder refused to concede last night. With exit polls suggesting the two main parties could win an identical number of seats in the German parliament, Merkel, too, refused to concede.

"I feel myself confirmed in ensuring on behalf of our country that there is in the next four years a stable government under my leadership," Schroeder said to cheering supporters at his Social Democrat party headquarters.

Message for change

But speaking almost at the same time to her supporters, Merkel, who two weeks ago looked assured of becoming Germany's first female chancellor, said the vote came with a clear message for change.

"What is important now is to form a stable government for the people in Germany, and we quite clearly have the mandate to do that," she said.

The Christian Democrats, received about 35 percent while Schroeder's Social Democrats won about 34 percent, and the remainder were spread primarily among three other parties, according to exit polls.

Merkel's ally, the Free Democrats, received about 10 percent. The Greens, who have served as Schroeder's junior partner in government the past seven years, received about 8 percent, exit polls showed. Also receiving 8 percent of the vote was the Left Party, a new group consisting of former East German communists and defectors from Schroeder's party, angered over welfare cuts.

To a large extent, Europe's economy goes as the German economy. While Germany's economy has showed signs of revival in the past year, the unemployment rate remains at about 11 percent, with more than 5 million people out of work. Some of the country's leading companies have been recording record profits, but unemployment in parts of the former East Germany is well above 20 percent.

Merkel, raised in East Germany, campaigned stolidly as a reformer, focusing repeatedly on Schroeder's failure to cut into the unemployment rate, which he had promised to halve when he deposed former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Schroder ran this time as a leader of Europe and as a counter to the United States, trying to energize his left-center base by chastising Merkel for meeting with the White House on the eve of the war in Iraq.

"In my government, decisions about war are taken in Berlin," he said during the campaign. "She shamed us abroad. It was indecent."

Polls showed, though, that voters overall approved of Merkel's call to repair ties with Washington, and she began the race with a huge leader over Schroeder, who was forced to call for the election a year ahead of time because of the public's frustration over the economy.

His policies proved tentative, with small cuts in taxes and unemployment benefits. Merkel said she would follow many of the same policies but with larger cuts.

Voters were choosing lawmakers for the 598-seat lower house of parliament, which elects the chancellor to head the government.

Center-right coalition

Merkel had hoped to reach a majority with the Free Democrats, which would have allowed her to form a center-right government and test her policies by pushing through her proposed pro-business work rules.

If she does become chancellor, she likely will have to water down her program as she joins forces with a party to her left in order to hold 50 percent of the seats in parliament. Her Christian Democratic Party already controls the upper house of parliament.

The most likely outcome of the vote was a "grand coalition" between Merkel's party and Schroeder's party, which would make it difficult for either right or left to push through reforms.

Schroeder had hinted that he would not take part in such a coalition, but for political reasons he could not indicate otherwise. With his remarks last night, he seemed to indicate that he would retain the chancellorship, regardless of the makeup of the government, but if Merkel's party finishes with more seats, he would certainly be out.

If the new parliament cannot elect a chancellor in three tries, President Horst Koehler could appoint a minority government led by the candidate with a simple majority.

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