- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

DRESDEN, Germany — Conservative challenger Angela Merkel’s party gained a seat yesterday in the last of the nation’s 260 districts to elect a member to parliament, boosting her chances of becoming Germany’s first female chancellor.

Andreas Laemmel from Mrs. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats won the contest for a seat in Dresden with 37 percent of the vote. He defeated Marlies Volkmer from Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democratic Party, who had 32.1 percent.

Although the outcome of the Dresden vote does not significantly alter the results of the Sept. 18 election, the strength of an extra seat in parliament is expected to give the conservatives a psychological advantage heading into coalition talks, which have been stalled because both Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Schroeder claim a mandate to be chancellor.

Roland Koch, the conservative governor of Hesse state, said that the vote confirmed the Christian Democrats and their sister party, the Christian Social Union, as the strongest bloc in parliament and that the coalition should choose the next chancellor.

“I see it as a step toward stability that we need to explain to the Social Democrats to stick to the rules,” Mr. Koch said before final results were announced. “I see it as a signal for Angela Merkel.”

More than 72.1 percent of those eligible in this east German district had cast ballots, officials said just after polls closed.

The high turnout reflected how seriously the 219,000 registered voters here are taking the voting, which was delayed by the death of a candidate during the election campaign.

The Sept. 18 vote centered on different visions of Germany’s role in the world and how to fix its sputtering economy. Mr. Schroeder touted the country’s role as a European leader willing to stand up to the United States, while Mrs. Merkel pledged to reform the economy and strengthen relations with Washington.

Their conflicting claims to the chancellorship have hindered exploratory talks over whether there is enough common ground to form a “grand coalition.”

The slow pace is frustrating other parties, such as the Free Democrats, who also could try to build a government with the conservatives if a grand coalition fails to coalesce.

“What can’t be agreed upon in two weeks will not be any better in four weeks,” Wolfgang Gerhardt, the parliamentary leader for the Free Democrats, said before yesterday’s vote.

He criticized plans to let negotiations continue until Oct. 31 as not indicative of a government capable of bringing about badly needed reforms.

But Free Democrats head Guido Westerwelle celebrated last night’s result, saying it should persuade Mr. Schroeder to drop his demand to be Germany’s leader.

“It means that Mr. Schroeder must finally understand that his time is up,” Mr. Westerwelle said.

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