"On Monday of this week, I informed the president of the Bundestag that I realize that I have the duty to raise in parliament the question of a vote of confidence. My proposal has a single, quite unequivocal, goal. I would like to propose to the republic's president to dissolve the 15th German parliament and make arrangements for new elections," Schroeder said.
Polls show that more than two-thirds of Germans want a new election. Schroeder's SPD has suffered a series of stinging defeats in local polls, including in the party's heartland state of North Rhine-Westphalia on 22 May.
His government's reform program -- called Agenda 2010 -- has yet to spur Germany's sluggish economy or cut unemployment, which stands at more than 11 percent.
In today's debate, Schroeder for the first time outlined his reasons for seeking early elections. He noted the "painful" regional defeats. "A consequence [of the defeats in local elections] was that it became clear that the correlation of forces without a new mandate from the German people made it impossible to continue successfully with my policies," he said.
But he also put blame on leftist members in his own SPD and in his Greens coalition partner for seeking to undermine his efforts to push through comprehensive labor, tax, and social welfare reforms.
But he also criticized the conservative opposition Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) -- led by Angela Merkel -- for what he termed a "destructive blockade" of reforms through their control of parliament's upper chamber, the Bundesrat.
Merkel is seeking to become Germany's first female chancellor. She hailed Schroeder's call: "We, the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction, welcome today's proposal, based on Paragraph 68 of the constitution, to vote for the goal of preparing elections to the German parliament."
She said the next election "will be an election about the direction the country is taking. It is not enough to say we'll carry on as before."
In a sometimes stormy debate, Merkel misspoke several times, underlining the tension of the occasion. She promised to unveil her own party's strategy for tackling Germany's problems later this month.
Germany's political system makes it difficult for a government to dissolve parliament before the end of a regular four-year term. Schroeder had to lose the no-confidence motion so he could formally ask President Horst Koehler to dissolve parliament and call early elections. Koehler must decide whether the vote conforms with the constitution or was a political maneuver, as opponents charge.
He has 21 days to decide. If he approves, new elections must be held within 60 days.
Even if Koehler assents to early polls, possible challenges in Germany's Constitutional Court could still disrupt Schroeder's plans. Germany's dpa news agency says lawsuits could be filed by smaller parties. They oppose early elections because they say their resources are too small to allow them to mount a campaign swiftly enough.
That means the Federal Constitutional Court will likely have the final say, which could delay a decision until late August.
(compiled from agency reports)