Divided German Voters Leave New Leadership Uncertain

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 19, 2005

BERLIN, Sept. 18 -- German voters dumped Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government Sunday but split their ballots among so many different parties that none was able to muster enough support to replace it.

Exit polls indicated that the German electorate was more fragmented than it had been in any other national vote in recent history, a reflection of deep anxiety over record unemployment and years of anemic growth in the world's third-largest economy. Although voters delivered a resounding defeat to Schroeder's ruling coalition, they were almost equally unimpressed with his chief rival, Angela Merkel, who was bidding to become the country's first female chancellor and the first from the former East Germany.

Merkel's Christian Democrats received about 35 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating Schroeder's Social Democrats, who won about 34 percent, according to unofficial returns from all but one voting district.

Voters were choosing lawmakers for the 598-seat lower house of Parliament, which elects the chancellor to head the government. Under Germany's complicated formula for determining political representation, some legislative seats could be added.

The results were embarrassingly weak showings for the two parties that have dominated German politics since the end of World War II. Neither was able to cobble together a majority with its usual coalition partner, leaving the question of who would lead the country unresolved.

Because the Christian Democrats finished first, they will get the first crack at putting together a new government in negotiations with other parties, a process that could take days or even weeks. "We had hoped for a better result," Merkel told a subdued group of supporters at party headquarters in Berlin, the capital. "The campaign is over, and now we need to create a stable government for the people of Germany. This is our mandate."

Analysts said that despite her party's tepid showing, Merkel remained the favorite to emerge as chancellor. But Schroeder was far from conceding the end of his reign, saying he would seek to cut a deal with other parties to remain on the job.

Even though his party lost, Schroeder looked like a candidate who had achieved a great victory. He gave a double thumbs-up and clasped his hands above his head in celebration when he emerged in public after the polls closed.

"Those who wanted a change in the office of this chancellor have failed grandly," he said defiantly. "I feel I have a mandate to ensure that in the next four years there will be a stable government in our country, under my leadership."

The most likely outcome, according to party officials and political analysts, is for the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats to form a unity government, or a "grand coalition." While Merkel would be the favorite to lead such an alliance by virtue of her party's stronger finish, nothing is certain. The two major parties have joined forces once before, from 1966 to 1969.

Opinion polls have shown that a plurality of voters preferred a grand coalition, saying they did not trust either major party to run the country on its own.

"If they put all those smart minds they say they have together, all the people they say they have as experts, I think it would turn out better for Germany," said Detlef Schlussler, 58, a bartender in the Berlin suburb of Reinickendorf. "If they start thinking about Germans first and what they can do about unemployment, it will be better for everyone."

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