German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has lost a vote of confidence in the Bundestag, his country's lower house of parliament. That sets the stage for general elections a year earlier than scheduled. Mr. Schroeder, who masterminded the losing vote, hopes the elections will give him a new mandate to push through his economic reform program.
Mr. Schroeder's risky political gamble was to lose a confidence vote, in order to win an election. In a rare and controversial procedure, Mr. Schroeder called on his supporters to abstain from voting. Not all of them did. But Bundestag Speaker Wolfgang Thierse indicated that the chancellor's ploy worked anyway, because the conservative opposition voted against him.
"Votes cast: 595. Yes votes: 151. No votes: 296. Abstentions: 148. Thereby, the application is successful," he announced.
In a speech to lawmakers before the vote, Mr. Schroeder, whose coalition now holds a wafer-thin majority of three votes in the Bundestag, acknowledged that he lacks the necessary support there to continue his reforms. And he also admitted that much of the opposition he faces comes from within his own Social Democratic Party, some of whose members say the measures harm the country's social protection system.
So, he said, he needs a new mandate from the German people to carry forward his reform program, known as Agenda 2010.
"With the reforms of Agenda 2010, we started to change fundamental structures of our society, in heath policy, in pension policy, and on the labor market. And these reforms are necessary, in order to preserve our welfare state, and to prepare our economy for globalization and the longer life expectancy of our society," he said.
But Mr. Schroeder's limited reform program has made no dent in Germany's unemployment rate, which remains at just under 12 percent, and is the biggest worry on voters' minds. With the economy in the doldrums, the opposition Christian Democrats are riding high in the polls, and are hoping that the chancellor's gamble on new elections will put them in power.
Christian Democratic leader Angela Merkel criticized Mr. Schroeder for what she called his incoherent and chaotic response to Germany's problems.
"The country does not want a zig-zag course, something which you have been doing, one step forward, two steps back, and this is something that took away the momentum from our country, and that's not what our country wants. Our country does not want piecemeal policies. Our country needs policies in one piece," she said.
Opinion polls show most Germans want new elections, despite their misgivings over the way the chancellor has gone about engineering them. But Mr. Schroeder's game plan still faces two major hurdles.
Germany's figurehead president, Horst Koehler, has 21 days to decide whether he should dissolve the Bundestag and call new elections. And even if he does so, he might not have the last word. Several lawmakers say the procedure Mr. Schroeder used to bring down his own government Friday was phony and unconstitutional. And they are taking their case to Germany's constitutional court, which could have the final say on the legality of the chancellor's ploy.