Merkel, Schroeder Split Vote; Both Claim Victory in German Chancellorship Race

Article excerpt

Byline: Nicholas Kralev, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BERLIN - Conservative challenger Angela Merkel fell short in her bid to oust Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in elections yesterday, winning a narrowly plurality but failing to get the majority needed to form a government without turning to parties in Mr. Schroeder's coalition for help.

The contest, featuring a last-minute comeback by Mr. Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD), was so close that Germans went to bed last night without knowing who would become their next chancellor.

Both Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Schroeder claimed victory, with Mrs. Merkel speaking first.

"We are the strongest party and have responsibility for forming the next government," she told supporters last night to cheers of "Angie, Angie."

A half-hour later, Mr. Schroeder called Mrs. Merkel "arrogant" and "self-confident" and said: "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."

Mrs. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union, won 35.2 percent of the vote - or 225 seats in parliament' against 34.3 percent for SPD, or 222 seats.

"Those who wanted a change in the chancellor's office have failed," Mr. Schroeder said.

Even with the 9.8 percent won by the Free Democratic Party, Mrs. Merkel's preferred coalition partner, she still would fall well short of the majority that would have allowed her to form a government and become Germany's first female chancellor.

Mr. Schroeder's coalition partners, the Greens, received 8.1 percent. The new Left Party of former Communists and a breakaway SPD faction won 8.7 percent. Turnout was 77.7 percent.

Mrs. Merkel conceded that she "had hoped for a better result," while CDU members used words such as "disastrous" and "devastating" to describe the election outcome.

Analysts said the election ended with the worst possible result and predicted a messy negotiation process as parties bargain to form a government.

"It's a disastrous loss for the CDU; it squandered the best starting position it had in seven years," said Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. …