-- A grim and tired-looking Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pleaded Friday with the German Parliament to dissolve his government, arguing that his ruling coalition had lost the ability to fix the German economy, the largest in Europe but hobbled by years of stagnation and joblessness.
After a two-hour debate, lawmakers approved Schroeder's request to disband and hold national elections in September. If the president and Supreme Court sign off on the plan -- and that is not at all certain -- the elections would take place a year earlier than necessary; opinion polls predict that Schroeder and his coalition will lose.
The next chancellor would likely be Angela Merkel, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats. She would be the first woman to hold the office, and the first person from the former communist East to lead the reunified Germany.
The sense of defeatism that lingered in the Reichstag building in the capital reflected the political mood across Germany, where a majority of voters say they lack confidence in any of their leaders to address a host of pressing social and economic issues. These include the highest unemployment rate since World War II and a failure to erase cultural and income gaps between eastern Germany and the wealthier west.
Schroeder won reelection three years ago, in large part by vociferously opposing U.S. policy toward Iraq. Like President Jacques Chirac of France, he has seen his popularity plummet at home because of economic concerns and anti-globalization sentiment, as well as anxiety over immigration and his country's role in the expanded European Union.
In an address to lawmakers, Schroeder said his ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens was hopelessly divided over his policies to rejuvenate the economy with a mixture of spending cuts and hiring incentives. "Without a new mandate, my political program cannot be carried forward," Schroeder said.
The unusual maneuver of seeking a vote of no confidence on his own rule grew from provisions in the German constitution that make it difficult to dissolve a government. These measures were drafted after World War II in an effort to avoid the political instability that helped the Nazis rise to power.
But Parliament's no-confidence vote must be upheld by President Horst Koehler, who has indicated that he will not rubber-stamp the move.
Koehler has three weeks to make his decision. He has said he will take into account arguments from some legal scholars and members of Schroeder's coalition that it is unconstitutional for a ruling party to disband a government unless there is a genuine political crisis that prevents it from operating.
Opponents of Friday's vote have already served notice that they will file a challenge with the German Supreme Court.
Otto Depenheuer, a law professor at the University of Cologne, said Schroeder carefully crafted his call for a no-confidence vote by stressing that rebels in the governing coalition were making it impossible for him to continue effectively, rather than blaming the opposition.
"He clearly stated that he was lacking support from his own party," Depenheuer said. "This is a clear sign for the federal president that the chancellor is no longer in a position to carry out his politics. "
Lawmakers in the lower house of Parliament voted 296 to 151 against the government, with 148 abstentions. Nearly all the abstentions came from Schroeder's coalition.
Opinion polls show the opposition Christian Democrats far ahead of Schroeder's party. In May, the Christian Democrats won a regional election in the populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, an industrial region that had strongly favored the Social Democrats for 40 years.
Merkel, the Christian Democratic leader, told members of Parliament that early elections were necessary. "The people are fed up with being governed by a zigzag course," she said.
In remarks aimed directly at Schroeder, she reminded the chancellor of a campaign promise he made in 1998 to add jobs. "You said it yourself, 'If we do not lower unemployment significantly, we do not deserve to be reelected,' " Merkel said. "Mr. Chancellor, you cannot argue that the figure of almost 5 million unemployed people is not almost exactly the opposite of what you anticipated."
While Schroeder's reelection chances look bleak, political analysts said he concluded that an early election was his only chance. By looking resolute and boldly admitting that he needs a popular mandate to administer unpleasant reforms, he hopes to win back voters who had soured on his party, they said.
Others suggested that Schroeder was resigned to losing. Klaus von Beyme, a political science professor at the University of Heidelberg, said the chancellor would rather be remembered as someone who stepped down early for the good of the country than a weak leader who dragged out his term in office.
"If he is now going to lose, which I think he will, he will go down in history as the man who acted like a hero and took the country on the right road," von Beyme said. "He has very much calculated what posterity will think of him. I don't think he will necessarily be sad if he loses. There's a certain tiredness of governing."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.