Schroeder seeks earlyelection after big defeat

23rd May 2005, Comments 0 comments

23 May 2005, BERLIN - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder made a surprise announcement on Sunday that he would seek early national elections this autumn after suffering a major defeat in a regional poll in Germany's industrial heartland.

23 May 2005

BERLIN - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder made a surprise announcement on Sunday that he would seek early national elections this autumn after suffering a major defeat in a regional poll in Germany's industrial heartland.

"The political basis for the continuation of our work has been put into question," said Schroeder, who termed the election result in North Rhine-Westphalia state as "bitter."

Schroeder said he needed a clear majority to carry on with reforms and that it was his "duty" to bring about new elections by autumn. Germany's next regular election is not due until autumn 2006.

The leader of Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD), Franz Muenterfing, was blunter: "We want a decision. ... The people should say how they want to be governed."

Voting in North Rhine-Westphalia had been billed as a major test for Schroeder's own re-election bid. Results showed his SPD being mauled in the state that it has ruled for the past 39 years. The party slumped to 37.1 percent of the vote - their worst showing in North Rhine-Westphalia in 50 years.

The main opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) coasted to victory with 44.8 percent.

A beaming Angela Merkel, the national leader of the CDU, who will likely challenge Schroeder in the national election, termed the result "sensational" and a "dramatic declaration of bankruptcy" for Schroeder.

Merkel, who hails from former communist eastern Germany, declined to say if she would be the CDU's chancellor candidate but sources told Deutsche Presse-Agentur that Merkel was sure to be named its candidate after a CDU meeting with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), on 30 May.

"We are naturally ready to fight an election," said Merkel, who ruled out setting up a "grand coalition" of the CDU/CSU with Schroeder's SPD.

Bavarian CSU Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber, who was narrowly defeated by Schroeder in Germany's 2002 general election, also declined to comment when asked if he wanted to run again.

Current national opinion polls showed the opposition CDU/CSU and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) would currently win a clear majority over Schroeder's SPD-Greens alliance.

Calling an early election is complicated under laws governing the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament.

Federal President Horst Koehler and the Federal Constitutional Court would have to accept moves by the chamber - known as a constructive no-confidence vote - which would trigger early elections. This method was used in 1982 under different circumstances and won high court approval.

Unemployment and Germany's chronically weak economy were the headline themes of the North Rhine-Westphalia election and will clearly dominate any national contest.

The jobless rate is 12 percent with 4.9 million people unemployed. The economy, although perking up in the first quarter this year, was not expected to post much better than 1-percent growth in the gross domestic product in 2005.

Meanwhile, many traditional SPD voters were angry over Schroeder's cuts to the German welfare state and unemployment benefits.

Muentefering won cheers from party members for attacks on capitalism in which he dubbed foreign investors - especially those running US hedge funds - as a plague of "locusts".

Schroeder has not used such language himself but said he broadly backs Muentefering's critique.

In his statement, Schroeder underlined that he wanted to continue reforms but gave no further details. A big question now is whether the disastrous election result will lead the SPD to slow or abandon its liberalisation policies in a bid to restore its fortunes with voters.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, the CDU was expected to seek a coalition with the FDP, which won 6.2 percent of the vote. The Greens, which currently serve as the SPD's coalition ally in North Rhine-Westphalia, also won 6.2 percent.

Juergen Ruettgers, a former CDU cabinet minister for ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl, will replace the SPD's Peer Steinbrueck as North Rhine- Westphalia state premier.


Subject: German news

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