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Schroeder Asks for Early Elections After State Poll Defeat


Germany looks set for a general election a year earlier than scheduled. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has called for such a poll in September after his Social Democratic Party suffered a crushing electoral defeat Sunday in its stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia.

The Social Democrats were booted out of office in Germany's richest and most populous state after 39 years in power. Mr. Schroeder's push for labor and social welfare reforms and the industrial state's high unemployment were seen as the main reason for his party's defeat.

In what analysts see as a risky move for the chancellor, Mr. Schroeder reacted quickly and said he would ask President Horst Koehler to call a national election scheduled for September 2006 a year early.

He said it is his responsibility and duty as German chancellor to persuade the German president to call new elections for the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, as quickly as possible, realistically by this autumn.

Analysts say Mr. Schroeder is hoping to breathe new life into his party between now and the election. They say his call for early elections is intended to raise the political stakes for the Christian Democratic opposition, whose leader, Angela Merkel, welcomed the idea.

One Berlin political analyst, Lutz Erbring, says Mr. Schroeder wants to fend off the possibility of a rebellion within his own party, many of whose leftist members are angry at his support for changes to Germany's generous social welfare system, including a reduction in unemployment benefits.

"It is something that, at the present time, I can only explain by assuming that there is trouble within the Social Democratic Party, in fact, within the parliamentary group of the Social Democratic Party," said Lutz Erbring.

Pollsters say many voters in traditionally Social Democratic North Rhine-Westphalia voted for the opposition because Mr. Schroeder's reforms produced no tangible benefits. Unemployment in Germany is just under 12 percent. The figure for North Rhine-Westphalia is higher.

In the weeks leading up to Sunday's election, Social Democratic chairman Franz Muentefering, in a sign that the party's rhetoric, at least, was moving toward the left, likened international investors to swarms of locusts. Chancellor Schroeder himself has also criticized the German business community, particularly those firms that have relocated their manufacturing operations to Eastern Europe, where labor costs are lower.

Ms. Merkel and the Christian Democrats have cautiously supported the chancellor's reforms, but show no signs of wanting to impose the painful measures economists deem necessary for Germany to become more competitive in the global market.

But economists like Holger Schmieding at Bank of America in London, argue that, if the Christian Democrats were to win the general elections, they would have a unique opportunity to undertake reforms because they would then control both houses of parliament.

"So, having a government controlling both houses of parliament would be good news," said Holger Schmieding. "And the major point for Germany, actually, is that now, with early elections, whoever wins, the period of political uncertainty and reform limbo is cut short to just four months instead of 16 months."

In order to get his early election, Mr. Schroeder must ask for a vote of confidence in the Bundestag. He would ask his supporters there to abstain so that he could lose the vote. Then, the Bundestag's president would probably decide to dissolve Parliament. And Germany's president would call for early elections.

Whether Mr. Schroeder can seize the initiative in the meantime is open to question. In Germany, as in much of the rest of Europe, the economy is not growing and new jobs are not being created. As governments have tried to reform the labor market, they have become unpopular with voters who want to hang on to the traditional European welfare state.

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