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Schroeder's call for early elections baffles political analysts in Germany

BERLIN—It's no secret here that Germans have fallen out of love with their leader, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who was re-elected in 2002 on an anti-American, anti-Iraq war platform.

But no one claims to understand what Schroeder did in the wake of a May 22 defeat for his Social Democratic Party in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which had voted for his party in every election for the last four decades.

Schroeder's setback came days before French voters delivered a similar rebuke to President Jacques Chirac, overwhelmingly rejecting a proposed European Constitution that Chirac backed. The two heads of state allied to oppose the Iraq war and became the symbols for anti-American feelings in Europe. Now, they both appear to be lame-duck leaders. (Press reports on a recent meeting between the two referred to them as "dead men talking.")

In the wake of his defeat and over the objections of his party, Schroeder called for national elections in September, nearly a year before his term expires.

Why a sitting politician with time to go in his term would call for new elections when his popularity is declining has baffled political analysts.

"Perhaps in the coming year he might have had time to repair his standing, but he's unpopular now, and calling for this election so weakens his position," said Karl-Heinz Kamp, a political scientist at Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a conservative research center.

"The only scenario that makes sense to anyone is that Schroeder wants to be liked, and now that it's clear he's not, he's fed up with the whole game, so he's leaving."

That's brought great joy to Schroeder's opponents, the more conservative Christian Democrats, and to the woman likely to emerge as the next chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Merkel is perhaps best remembered in the United States for openly differing with Germany's anti-Iraq invasion stance before the war. The declaration, in speeches and an op-ed column in The Washington Post, stirred outrage in Germany for violating the tradition of not expressing divisions on international topics.

Friedbert Pflueger, a Christian Democratic member of Parliament, said one clear advantage of a Merkel-led government would be immediate improvements in relations with Washington, both for Germany and Europe. He said Schroeder and Chirac sought to create a new Europe as a counterweight to the United States, politically and economically.

"They put us at odds," he said. "We understand that while we can disagree at times, we have to respect the importance of our relationship."

Opinion polls since the North Rhine-Westphalia vote—by German television stations, newspapers, magazines and polling groups—show the Christian Democrats leading by 15 to 21 percentage points.

But whether German voters will be happy with a Christian Democratic government is open to question.

Schroeder's popularity fell in the wake of increased health care surcharges, new taxes on pensions and cuts in unemployment benefits against a backdrop of a 12 percent unemployment rate, the highest since World War II.

But Merkel's Christian Democrats have made no secret of their intentions to build on Schroeder's cuts to what the Germans call "Father State," a term used to describe state-supported health care, education, and employment programs.

"It's difficult to explain what is going on here, in any kind of a logical sense," said Manuela Glaab, the head of the University of Munich-based Center for Applied Policy Research. "People simply know that they want change, and nothing else is available."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Gerhard Schroeder

ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050523 Germany politics, 20050530 Merkel bio and 20050530 Merkel career

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