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Maneuvering Begins for a New German Government
Major Parties Reach Out As Leaders Lose Luster

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

BERLIN, Sept. 19 -- Germany's major political parties both claimed the right on Monday to patch together a new government following inconclusive national elections, but were confronted with the likelihood of weeks of backroom deal-making before anyone is able to take control.

After their respective parties took a beating in Sunday's vote, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his chief rival, Angela Merkel, were losing their sheen as candidates to lead the country. Lawmakers and analysts tossed around various scenarios in which the country's numerous factions could settle on someone else as a compromise.

Merkel, 51, whose Christian Democrats once had a double-digit lead in opinion polls, said she would open talks with other parties -- including Schroeder's Social Democrats -- about assembling a coalition. But she insisted that her party take the lead in forging a new government by virtue of its narrow first-place finish, with about 35 percent of the vote.

"The election campaign is over, the voters have had their say and we are the strongest party in Parliament," she said at a news conference in Berlin, the capital. "We received a clear mandate to govern."

But Schroeder, 61, and the Social Democrats were having little of that. Even though Schroeder's governing coalition was toppled, his party fared better than predicted. It polled about 34 percent, an achievement that the chancellor portrayed as a virtual victory, given how he was forced to call early elections because of widespread dissatisfaction with a weak economy and record high unemployment.

Franz Muentefering, the Social Democrats' party chairman, said Schroeder deserved a third term. "Mrs. Merkel was being cheered as if she were already the chancellor," Muentefering told reporters. "But it's quite clear that this country doesn't want Mrs. Merkel. I do think it is a personal defeat for her."

Analysts said that despite the Social Democrats' posturing, Schroeder had few realistic prospects for remaining in office. But they also said Merkel had wasted a golden opportunity during the campaign and would be hard-pressed to salvage her candidacy.

"The woman who thought she had everything in her hands now feels it all slipping through her fingers," Heribert Prantl, political editor of the influential Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, wrote in a signed editorial. "Seldom has such a presumed victor looked so disgraced."

Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, agreed. "Angela Merkel may very well be a dead woman walking," she said. "My gut instinct tells me Merkel is in a very difficult position, which is why the Social Democrats are grinning so broadly. Right now, everybody is playing chicken."

The message that the electorate delivered on Sunday was a muddled one. Exit polls showed that many voters were tired of the status quo in Germany -- with its high joblessness and flaccid economy -- but were equally skeptical of the solutions offered by either Merkel or Schroeder. The result was the most splintered vote in decades.

For now, Schroeder's ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens will remain in charge, but only until a new alliance emerges that can cobble together a majority of the seats in Parliament. The major parties began that work in earnest on Monday.

Muentefering, for instance, indicated that the Social Democrats would put pressure on the Free Democrats -- an anti-taxation, pro-business party that received about 10 percent of the vote -- to abandon Merkel and join them in a coalition.

The leader of the Free Democrats, Guido Westerwelle, categorically rejected the overture on election night. But Muentefering said he would keep pushing. "Perhaps they were a little too overconfident about yesterday's result," he said.

Similarly, Merkel served notice that her party would try to persuade the Greens to change their stripes, giving them a chance to remain in power under the Christian Democrats, even though the two parties disagree sharply on some issues, such as nuclear energy.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the most prominent Green, said he could not foresee his party marching under Merkel's banner. "She will not be chancellor," he declared. But other Green officials said they were willing to listen.

While the German constitution requires that Parliament reconvene within 30 days of an election, there is no deadline for picking a chancellor or governing majority.

Christian Pestalozza, a constitutional law professor at the Free University of Berlin, dismissed suggestions that Germany was facing a political crisis. He predicted that the parties would soon lower the rhetoric and be more pragmatic in building a coalition.

"According to the constitution, they have all the time they need to take to work this out," he said. "I'm quite sure that after two or three weeks, we'll know what we'll have."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company