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Germany: Schroeder Retains Power After Tight Election

Germany's governing coalition of Social Democrats and Green environmentalists narrowly retained power on 22 September in an election that remained dramatic until early this morning. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the Green leader, Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer, have agreed to continue their coalition. The losing opposition leader Edmund Stoiber said he doubts if the new government can remain in power for more than a year. One of the first tasks of that government will be to try to repair the damaged relations with the United States, caused partly by Schroeder's refusal to support a military attack on Iraq.

Munich, 23 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's governing coalition of Social Democrats and Green environmentalists was returned to power in Sunday's national elections despite a heavy loss of seats. The government owes its narrow victory to unexpectedly strong support for the Green coalition party.

Results released today indicate that the Social Democrats (SPD) led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and its Green coalition led by Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer will have 306 seats in parliament. This is four more than the absolute majority of 302 seats. The opposition coalition of the Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) and Free Democrats has 11 seats fewer than the government, with 295.

A triumphant Schroeder told reporters today that the opposition had achieved none of its electoral goals while his coalition government had accomplished all of its goals. "The union has not achieved any of its electoral goals: [It is] neither the strongest party [in parliament], nor will [it] govern. We have achieved all our electoral goals: We remain the strongest party [in parliament] and we will form the government," Schroeder said.

Schroeder said his main goal now is to reduce unemployment -- now running at more than 9 percent of the labor force -- and to provide a new impulse for Germany's stagnant economy. He also wants to find a solution to the ever-increasing costs of the German health system.

Another issue is education. Earlier this year, an international investigation into the scholastic abilities of 15-year-olds placed Germany in 21st place out of the 32 industrialized countries that participated.

Schroeder said he will also try to repair relations with the United States, which have been severely damaged by the chancellor's decision not to participate in a possible military attack on Iraq. Schroeder renewed his pledge on this point in interviews today.

Diplomats said Foreign Minister Fischer is expected to go to Washington in the next few days to try to ease the tensions. German commentators pointed out today that Fischer has always been more cautious in his language about Iraq and the U.S. than Schroeder and dotted his own campaign speeches with praise for the United States as Germany's friend.

The Foreign Ministry in Berlin said today the issue of German-U.S. relations is urgent because on 1 January, Germans are due to take over one of the nonpermanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, where Iraq is likely to be a major issue.

Schroeder is expected to move quickly to end another source of tension with the U.S. by removing Justice Minister Herta Daubler-Gmelin from his cabinet. She created a scandal last week by suggesting that U.S. President George W. Bush wanted the war with Iraq to distract attention from economic problems in the United States. She said these methods had been used several times since the time of Adolf Hitler. Daubler-Gmelin denies that she wanted to compare Bush with Hitler. She lost her seat in yesterday's election but is expected to return to the federal parliament on a party list.

The government triumphed only after a long night of seesawing results that began with Stoiber's Christian Democrats well ahead of the Social Democrats. The government's victory was confirmed only early this morning.

An opposition spokesman, Friedrich Merz, told reporters the electorate had given the Christian Democrats the task of opposition, just as it had in the previous parliament, and it would carry out this task. "The union has been given the same task by the electorate as it had in the last election: to perform the role of opposition in the German parliament. That is what we now must do, what the [CDU/CSU] must do. And we will fulfill this task," Merz said.

A disappointed Stoiber told a postelection meeting in Munich today that he did not believe the government would remain in power for its full four-year term. He said he was prepared to take over power "within a year." Stoiber is expected to return to his power base as premier of the state of Bavaria, although he could take a seat in the national parliament. He remains the chancellor candidate of his party.

Chancellor Schroeder and Foreign Minister Fischer appeared together early today to say they will continue their coalition. Schroeder told reporters today he expected a new coalition agreement to be ready within about three weeks. Fischer said he expected the Greens to be given more seats in the cabinet as a reward for its election performance. "We have always said to each other that we would work together to maintain this majority. I see absolutely no reason to change this position," Fischer said.

The Greens, who won only 7 percent in the 1998 election, had set 8 percent as their goal for yesterday's poll. Today's results indicate they won 8.6 percent. Most of those elected come from the so-called "pragmatist" wing of the party, which has abandoned the party's former pacifist policies.

Supporters of these policies caused problems for Schroeder in the previous government when he agreed to send German troops to Macedonia and Afghanistan. However, today's figures suggest that at least one of those who opposed the use of German troops, Hans-Christian Stroebele, might still win a seat. The Greens dropped him from their party list, but he ran his own campaign.

The other second-ranking party, the Free Democrats, had hoped to join a governing coalition with Stoiber's Christian Democrats. It had set its goal at 18 percent of the vote but won only 7.4 percent.

Most German commentators say its chances were damaged by anti-Semitic comments published by its vice chairman, Juergen Moelleman, last week.

Today, Moelleman announced that he had resigned from his post. He accepted partial blame for his party's performance but did not apologize for his remarks.

The successors to the former East German communist party, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), failed to gather the minimum 5 percent of the votes needed to enter parliament as a party. Two of its members won individual seats and are expected to vote with the Social Democrats on most issues.

It is the first time since the reunion of Germany in 1990 that the PDS has not been represented in the national parliament by a full-fledged faction. The leader of the party, Gabi Zimmer, said today it was possible the PDS had exhausted its possibilities as the successor to the old communist party.

Political analysts said today they expect the government to have a difficult time in the next four years. Although it has a majority in parliament, the opposition controls the upper house, or Bundesrat, where Germany's 16 states are represented. Bundesrat approval is required for many laws, particularly those involving finance.

Schroeder said he wants to implement the proposals for cutting unemployment recently submitted by a special commission led by Peter Hartz.

However, political experts such as Meinhard Megel, head of the Institute for Economy and Science in Bonn, do not expect the major overhaul that most experts believe is needed. "It is hard to see this government reducing the duration and size of Germany's generous unemployment benefits [that] encourage many of the jobless to remain on [unemployment insurance]," he said. "Nor is it likely that it will take the other unpopular measures [that] are needed to put Germany back on the road to prosperity and at the forefront of European industry and business."

Others, however, believe the government will face continued prodding from an opposition that is expected to be more active under the leadership of Edmund Stoiber than it was in the previous four years.