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Lacking Voters’ Love, German Parties Feel Need to Hook Up

Times Staff Writer

And the new chancellor is: Nobody knows.

Germany was in political disarray Monday as Mercedes caravans carrying party leaders raced through the capital’s streets and backroom whisperings were later finessed into sound bites. But it may take liberals and conservatives weeks to form a coalition government following a Sunday election that jolted the nation into uncertainty by giving no party a mandate.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, have both claimed victory, but neither won enough votes to lead a new government. The unfolding scenario means Schroeder’s Social Democrats and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, could join in a coalition or ally with smaller parties to cobble together enough seats in parliament to forge a majority.

The atmosphere is an intriguing, if unsettling, diversion for the normally tidy Germans, but it has caused consternation in Europe. Germany’s is the continent’s largest economy, and the delays in forming a government and enacting economic and social reforms were quickly and widely felt.

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Financial markets dipped and the euro slipped to a seven-week low when morning headlines announced chaos and confusion.

The political stalemate may not be resolved for a month or more. Schroeder’s term is set to end Oct. 18, when members of the new parliament take office. If the parties don’t agree on a new chancellor by then, parliament will have three chances to find a compromise candidate. If that fails, German President Horst Koehler can name a chancellor or dissolve parliament and call new elections.

“Schroeder is staking everything on new elections,” Nils Diederich, a political science professor at Berlin’s Free University, told the German media. “Strategically, this is exactly what it boils down to.”

Sunday’s election was portrayed by Merkel and her followers as a historic opportunity to set Germany on a new, more pro-business path to improve a stagnant economy and bring down the high unemployment that has persisted for years. But the results underscored the anxiety Germans have about trimming the generous entitlement programs that have defined their welfare state since the end of World War II.

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The Social Democrats offered moderate cuts. The conservatives, who led in the polls for months, campaigned for harsher reductions. But the vote indicated that Germany, like much of Europe, was wary of the pressures of globalization and American-style capitalism. Analysts now fear that a coalition of the CDU and Social Democrats would magnify this dilemma and lead to gridlock as liberals moved to block conservative plans.

“After this election, only one thing is absolutely clear: Germany isn’t ready for change. And that is the worst signal for the future government,” said Uta Thofern, a political analyst with Deutsche Welle radio.

The process of forming a new government is likely to be tricky and laced with arcane maneuverings and alliances that bloom and fade.

Members of the CDU spent much of Monday wondering how the party lost its large preelection lead and ended up with 35.2% of the vote, only 1 percentage point more than the Social Democrats. Merkel urged the Social Democrats to concede and “accept the fact they are not the strongest party.”

However, anger grew within the CDU over Merkel’s strategy of announcing an unpopular flat-tax platform during the campaign, which caused the conservatives to stumble days before the election. Factions within the CDU, mainly from the male-dominated politics of Bavaria in southern Germany, are raising doubts about her ability to lead.

“The decline of Angela Merkel is really surprising me,” said Johannes Becker, a political scientist at Marburg University. “There’s a lack of confidence in her. She will be destroyed and marginalized within months.”

Schroeder emerged from the election sensing momentum toward a third term and urging his party to avoid entering a “grand coalition” with the CDU, by which Merkel would become the nation’s first woman chancellor.

Many analysts give Merkel a slight edge in the rivalry because her party was the top vote getter. But the chairman of the Social Democrats, Franz Muentefering, said, “The message was clear: This country does not want Mrs. Merkel as chancellor.”

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The Sueddeutsche Zeitung credited Schroeder for rallying his party from 20 points behind to nearly catching the CDU. “The chancellor has gained new respect with his great final race,” wrote Heribert Prantl. “He has turned a campaign that started out as a funeral procession into a furious race.”

Alternative parties, such as the pro-business Free Democrats and the new Left Party, a populist collection of mainly former Communists and Social Democrats, sought ways to exploit their strong showings at the polls.

They say voters are frustrated with mainstream parties, and new voices must have more influence in parliament.


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