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Germany: Coalition Uncertain Over Parliament's Confidence Vote

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has called for a vote of confidence from parliament tomorrow because of doubts within his coalition over his unqualified support for the war against terrorism. German commentators say Schroeder is taking a risk because if he fails to win, new elections will be held in February -- nine months early. Others say the vote of confidence is Schroeder's only chance to impose discipline on his unruly coalition government.

Munich, 15 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for tomorrow's vote of confidence because at least eight members of his coalition partner, the Greens environmentalist party, say they plan to vote against his plan to offer military support to the U.S. in the war against terrorism.

The Greens defections -- plus one and maybe more from Schroeder's own Social Democratic Party -- could deprive the government of a majority. The government can afford only eight defections within its own ranks if it is to achieve the necessary 334 votes for a majority.

The opposition has said it will vote against the government. However, it has promised to vote for the bill giving military support to the war against terrorism. This would ensure a majority for the measure.

At noon today, a government spokesman said at least four members of the Greens party and one from the Social Democrats are still determined to vote against the government.

The spokesman said a variety of strategies are being used to persuade them to change their approach. One suggestion is that they would support the government in the confidence vote but issue a separate statement opposing military assistance.

Support for the Greens has dropped severely in recent provincial elections. The co-leader of the Greens, Claudia Roth, told journalists today the defectors are under intense pressure from their own leadership to change their minds. If the government falls, early elections in February will be unavoidable. Roth said the Greens can expect extreme voter hostility if that happens, and it could mean the end of their party in parliament.

"If the confidence vote fails, there will be new elections at the end of January or early in February. All opinion polls -- and some of us in the Greens parliamentary faction -- believe that could mean the end for the Greens."

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer -- a member of the Greens -- said today he believes the gains made by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in the past few days, and plans to create an interim government with the help of the United Nations, have weakened the defectors' position.

The government's offer to give more than $43 million for humanitarian relief had also weakened their opposition. The government has also offered more than $80 million for reconstruction.

Fischer says: "I believe that the developments of the last days and hours, and the days and hours which stand before us, could be decisive in producing a positive development -- and that's what I wish."

The chief spokesman for the opposition Christian Democrats, Friedrich Merz, confirmed today that opposition parties will vote against the government in tomorrow's vote. But he told journalists this morning that he expects the threat of defeat will bring pressure on government defectors to support Schroeder.

"This government is in a deep crisis about its own existence. The federal chancellor [Schroeder] must take radical measures to hold his majority together. I believe he will succeed in this on Friday [16 November]. The pressure he is imposing is immense."

Schroeder's government has offered warships, transport aircraft, and army commandos to the U.S.-led effort. It excluded the deployment of combat aircraft and combat troops. The total number of men involved is about 3,900, most of them on warships.

Last night, the government agreed that Germany will not offer troops to any international security force in Afghanistan. The decision was detailed in a text put together at a meeting last night between Schroeder, Fischer and the leader of the Greens in parliament, Kerstin Mueller. A government spokesman told RFE/RL today that this should be understood as a concession to those who strongly opposed active German participation in the war.

One of the Greens' concerns is that once parliament approved the principle of military aid, the mission of the force might be expanded to include actual participation in the fighting.

The government says Germany's forces are already actively engaged in the Balkans. Together with the aid now being offered to the U.S., the government says this is a sufficient demonstration of Germany's concern for international security.

Schroeder said last night it had been a difficult decision to ask for a vote of confidence from parliament at a time when his own coalition is so deeply divided -- but he says it had to be done to make clear what is expected from members of a governing coalition.

"This was a very serious decision to have to take. But when one holds this office, one cannot run away from serious decisions -- and also not allow others to run away."

Despite the government's concern over the outcome of tomorrow's vote, some German analysts are speculating the government might actually prefer to have a general election in February rather than in November of next year.

One of the many who has raised this possibility is Peter Kohler. His argument is that Schroeder might like to go to the people at a time when the opposition Christian Democrats are in disarray over who should be their candidate for chancellor in the next election. The two main candidates -- party Chairman Angela Merkel and Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber -- make little secret of their rivalry. Other candidates are waiting in the wings.

Other commentators point out the German economy is stagnating and unemployment is rising. A report issued this week by the Council of German Economic Experts predicts that economic growth will be only 0.6 percent this year and 0.7 percent next year. This is far below what the government had predicted earlier in the year. Unemployment is also expected to rise next year and be far higher than the 3.5 million that Schroeder set as his goal when he entered office.

The analysts argue that all these are reasons why Schroeder might prefer an early election. But government spokespeople, asked about this today by RFE/RL, declined to comment. They say everything depends on tomorrow's vote.