German troops will embark on their first combat mission since the Second World War if the government can win a confidence vote in the Bundestag today.
Resistance to a German deployment in Afghanistan was crumbling on the eve of the vote but the fate of the government rests with a handful of Green party waverers.
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has made it clear that he will call snap elections if he loses today's vote, which ties his "Red-Green" coalition's survival to endorsement of the combat mission.
On paper, the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens can afford to lose the votes of eight MPs. After two days of arm-twisting, four Green MPs and one Social Democrat remained defiant last night, swearing to vote against their own government. At least another four Green dissidents were undecided.
But the prospect of a fall of the coalition and almost certain demise of their party has apparently helped concentrate the minds of "Fundis" – Green fundamentalists opposed to any kind of military action.
One of them, the arch-pacifist Christian Ströbele, says the confidence vote puts the war "in a different light".
In theory, Mr Schröder could expel the Greens and build a new government but the opposition Free Democrats, potentially new coalition partners, will not play along. Wolfgang Gerhardt, the Free Democrats' leader, said: "We refuse to be pressured by the government. If it falls, I think the fairest solution would be to go to the people."
Every sign indicates that Mr Schröder would not be distraught about such an eventuality and might even be banking on it. Unlike a British prime minister, a German chancellor does not have the power to set the date. If he did, he would probably be going to the country about now. The opposition Christian Democrats are in disarray, not even sure who will lead them into an election.
Germany's economy is on the slide but the probable effects of the slowdown – another 500,000 people on the dole within a year – are yet to be felt. Add in the international crisis, which tends to rally German voters to the side of the government, and the omens for a re-election become excellent.
The Greens, being asked today to swallow their pacifist convictions, have made calculations of their own and are painfully aware of the perils. "When the government loses the confidence vote, then there will new elections at the end of January," predicts Christine Scheel, a Green MP.
"All the opinion polls indicate – and that is also our assumption – that that will be the end of the Greens," she said.
There is no guarantee the Greens will be in any better shape next September to clear the 5 per cent parliamentary hurdle but the majority of Green MPs think it is politically more sensible to cling to power until then.
The Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, are rooting for Mr Schröder. Angela Merkel and Edmund Stoiber, the two respective party leaders, met again on Wednesday night to decide which of them should head the joint election campaign.
Ms Merkel dismissed reports that she had agreed to let Mr Stoiber have a go. But polls taken among members of the two parties show the overwhelming majority would prefer her Bavarian adversary.Reuse content