Schröder urges early election after poll defeat

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The Independent Online

Gerhard Schröder's ruling Social Democrats have announced surprise plans to bring forward Germany's general election by a year to this autumn after the party suffered a shattering defeat to conservatives in a key poll in the former left-wing stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia.

The vote in the country's most populous state was seen as the last and most important test of Chancellor Schröder's popularity prior to Germany's full general election, originally scheduled for the autumn of 2006.

Yet it resulted in a dramatic, if predicted, victory for the opposition conservative Christian Democrats who ended 39 years of unbroken rule by Social Democrats in the state and upped their share of the vote by eight per cent. The Social Democrat's dismal performance - the worst for 50 years in North Rhine-Westphalia - prompted Franz Müntefering, the party's general secretary to take the almost unprecedented step of calling for Germany's general election to be brought forward by a year.

"The Chancellor and I want ... a decision and we are aiming at an early general election this year," he said yesterday. A final decision on whether to bring the election forward would be subject to a vote by the entire German parliament.

However, Angela Merkel, the CDU's 46-year-old leader who described her party's victory as a "sensational success" said she favoured an early election. "Every day without the Social Democrats and Greens in power is a good day for Germany," she said.

The CDU was expected to decide within weeks, if not days, on their candidate to challenge Mr Schröder for the Chancellorship. The frontrunner remains Mrs Merkel, who would become the first woman in Germany to run for the post.

The vote brought humiliating defeat for North Rhine-Westphalia's "red-green coalition" of Social Democrats and Greens and put the CDU firmly on course to form a new coalition in the state comprised of conservatives and liberals who won an estimated six percent of the vote.

More significantly, the outcome was also a crushing vote of no confidence in Mr Schröder, who was first elected to power seven years ago on a mandate to reform Germany's ailing economy and reduce the country's deepening unemployment problem.

CDU officials insisted yesterday that their victory in North Rhine-Westphalia, a state larger the size of Belgium in terms of population and with an industrial output higher than Brazil's, had put them firmly on course for victory in the next German general election.

"The result may herald the beginning of the end of the government in Berlin because 12 of Germany's 16 federal states will be ruled by conservatives," said Richard Kessler, a political commentator in the state. "Mr Schröder will have hardly any room to manoeuvre," he added.

Veteran observers of the German left warned earlier that the outcome could also lead to a spate of bitter infighting within the ruling SPD which might prompt Mr Schröder's early resignation as Chancellor. "The SPD may trip itself up. If the Chancellor's reputation is damaged in the process, nobody should be surprised if he throws in the towel," said Peter Glotz, a leading SPD strategist.

Mr Schröder's failure to reduce Germany's five million unemployment burden, despite a battery of social and economic reforms designed to combat the problem, was seen as the main reason for the Social Democrat's demise in North Rhine-Westphalia - a state regarded for nearly four decades as an impregnable stronghold of the left.

The state has over one million unemployed and a jobless rate of over 15 per cent - a figure well above the national 10 per cent average. More than 12,000 companies have gone bankrupt in the region, once considered Germany's economic powerhouse, over the past five years.

The conservative CDU devoted its campaign to portraying Mr Schröder's party in North Rhine-Westphalia as a dilapidated car engine that failed to start. "Isn't it time to think about getting a new motor?" ran their slogan.

In a desperate effort to improve their chances of success in North Rhine-Westphalia, Mr Schröder's SPD embarked on an extraordinary campaign which involved portraying speculators and investment companies that fired staff en masse as "locusts". Ten days ago it emerged that the party had also drawn up a "locust list" of firms deemed to practice anti-social hire-and-fire policies.

The tactic provoked a furious reaction from employers. But it also appeared to have backfired with voters, as it failed to translate into a surge of support for the Social Democrats.

Reports yesterday suggested that the Schröder government was facing a growing crisis over its Agenda 2010 reform package designed to kick-start the country's ailing economy. Der Spiegel magazine said the reform had unexpectedly put an additional one million unemployment benefit recipients on the dole queue and increased government spending by an unforeseen €20bn as a result.

"This threatens to turn into the worst government-inspired accident since the mismanagement of German reunification," Der Spiegel remarked.