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Germans Re-Elect Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats - 2002-09-22

Germany's ruling center-left coalition has managed to eke out a razor-thin victory in the tightest electoral race in the country's modern history.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats and their environmentalist Green allies seem assured of at least ten more seats in the lower house of parliament than the center-right alliance that challenged them.

It was a nail-biting finish to a night of seesawing projections by German television networks, that showed the vote veering one way, and then the other.

But eight hours after polling stations closed, and with 99 percent of the vote tabulated, the so-called red-green alliance had built up a slim lead that will enable it to hold on to power.

It was the Greens, with their strongest-ever showing of eight-and-a half percent, that put the coalition on the road to victory. The conservatives' traditional partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, did worse than expected, picking up a little more than seven percent.

The challenge now is for the coalition to stay together over a four-year term, and that may be difficult. Having secured victory for the coalition, the Greens have already put the Social Democrats on notice that they want more attention given to environmental matters and social policy.

When it began to appear that the red-green coalition would come out on top, Conservative leader Edmund Stoiber appeared before his followers in Munich, his home town, to make what amounted to a concession speech.

"Should we not be able to construct a government and administration, even if this was not the case, then the Schroeder government has a very short time to live," he said.

Mr. Stoiber says he gives the Schroeder government a year and will be ready to take over when it falls.

The conservative leader also criticized the Chancellor for damaging Germany's credibility with the United States.

In the last few weeks of the campaign, Mr. Schroeder seized on deep anti-war sentiment in Germany to come back from behind by pledging that Germany would never back a U.S./led attack on Iraq, even if it is supported by the United Nations. Most analysts agree that Mr. Schroeder now has to undertake some serious diplomatic bridge-building with Washington. While the White House was irked by his stance on Iraq, it was outraged when his justice minister allegedly equated President Bush with Adolf Hitler, saying both men had sought to distract attention from domestic problems by engaging in foreign adventures.