/ 30 September 2005

German rivals return to campaign trail

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his conservative rival, Angela Merkel, were back on the campaign trail on Friday ahead of weekend voting in the eastern city of Dresden, which will complete the country’s inconclusive general election.

About 220 000 voters, about 0,35% of the German electorate, will go to the polls on Sunday to cast their votes and decide the final seats in the Bundestag Lower House of Parliament.

Voting in Dresden was delayed for two weeks by the death of a neo-Nazi candidate during the election campaign.

Merkel was to speak in the eastern city on Friday afternoon, with Schröder due to rally his Social Democrat supporters one hour later.

Sunday’s results will not change the overall picture from the general election on September 18, which produced a narrow three-seat advantage for Merkel’s Christian Democrats over the Social Democrats but fell well short of what was required for a governing majority.

A question of leadership

After two weeks of exploratory talks, the biggest country in the European Union appears to be heading towards a so-called grand coalition of Schröder and Merkel’s parties.

The burning question remains of who will lead the country.

Schröder claims he still has a mandate for a third term as chancellor, but Merkel said her alliance won the election and therefore she should govern.

”The biggest political party in a coalition has the prerogative to put forward a chancellor,” Merkel said in an interview with Friday’s edition of the Saechsische Zeitung newspaper, which covers the Dresden area.

Merkel added that the negotiations to form a grand coalition — and the accompanying horse-trading of ministerial posts — will only begin once a decision has been made on who will be chancellor.

Schröder, however, told the same newspaper that the chancellery issue should form part of the bargaining.

”We cannot say that the negotiations will only begin once we have made concessions,” he said.

Will he stay or will he go?

The Social Democrats, meanwhile, poured cold water on claims from the conservatives that Schröder would stand aside after the voting in Dresden.

Franz Muentefering, the leader of the Social Democrats, said on Thursday: ”There is nothing in this. Our demand remains the same: we want to govern with Gerhard Schröder as chancellor.”

Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the Free Democrats, which was Merkel’s original choice for a coalition partner, said he ”fully expects” that Schroeder will step aside following the Dresden vote.

And Michael Glos, a leading member of the Christian Social Union, the Christian Democrats’ sister party in Bavaria, said he also expects Schröder to stand down on Monday.

But it was announced on Friday that Schröder is to visit Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on Wednesday, suggesting he intends to still be head of government at that point.

Although three seats are at stake in the district of Dresden concerned by Sunday’s voting, the Christian Democrats can at worst only lose one seat because of the complex German electoral system, which is a mixture of the majority and proportional systems.

In the last election in 2002, the Dresden district elected a Christian Democrat by a narrow margin.

Yet the election could have a psychological impact on the intense negotiations to come before a grand coalition is formed.

Amid the suspense, conservative politicians have begun asking out loud what went wrong to cost Merkel the clear election victory the opinion polls had predicted all summer.

”Our campaign was too sober, too cool,” said Guenther Beckstein, the interior minister of the southern state of Bavaria.

Karl-Josef Laumann, the head of the Christian Democratic Employers’ Union, said: ”We failed to win voters’ hearts.” — Sapa-AFP