- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

BERLIN — Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and conservative challenger Angela Merkel fought for their political lives yesterday after a cliffhanger election reminiscent of the Bush-Gore deadlock of 2000.

Unlike in the United States, Germany’s battle over the Sunday election will be fought not in court but with backroom bargains as the rivals appeal to smaller parties in their struggle to form a government and become the next chancellor.

Failure to form a government would in effect end the political careers of Mr. Schroeder and Mrs. Merkel, said officials from their respective Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The two parties yesterday issued invitations for coalition talks to each other, as well as to the pro-market Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the leftist Greens.

“I have initiated contact with [their] offices,” Mrs. Merkel said, urging the center-left Social Democrats to “accept that they are not the strongest party” and to agree to a right-left “grand coalition” under her leadership.

The SPD leadership said it will talk with the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), but it ruled out taking part in a Cabinet led by Mrs. Merkel.

“It is clear that Germans do not want Mrs. Merkel as their chancellor,” SPD Chairman Franz Muentefering told reporters after a party meeting.

“We have a responsibility to make clear that we want to rule with Mr. Schroeder as chancellor and implement much of what we have undertaken to do,” he said in reference to an economic and social reform package known as Agenda 2010.

But Mrs. Merkel said: “I do not rule out anybody revising their position.”

SPD officials also challenged Mrs. Merkel’s assertion that hers is the country’s strongest party, having won 225 seats in the Bundestag, the parliament’s lower house, against 222 for the SPD.

The Bundestag has 598 seats, but more may be added under the country’s proportional representation electoral system.

The Social Democrats argued that the CSU should be considered a separate party, even though it always has allied with the CDU in federal elections.

In addition, the election in a district in the eastern city of Dresden will not take place until Oct. 2 because of a candidate’s death. That vote could provide up to four members and tip the balance, although it is unlikely that all the seats will go to the SPD, analysts said.

The CDU/CSU alliance won 35.2 percent of the vote compared with 34.3 percent for the SPD. FDP, Mrs. Merkel’s preferred coalition partner, received 9.8 percent — not enough for the two parties to form a government.

Mr. Schroeder’s coalition partners, the Greens, received 8.1 percent. The new Left Party of former communists and a breakaway SPD fraction did slightly better with 8.7 percent.

Interior Minister Otto Schily, a leading Social Democrat, said he hoped the Free Democrats would join the center-left “red-green” coalition because “we have points in common.” But FDP leader Guido Westerwelle rejected the overture.

The Greens were the most accommodating party yesterday. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the party’s leader, said he would not serve in a Merkel Cabinet, but neither he nor any other party leader ruled out joining a CDU-FDP government.

“We are interested in content,” the Greens’ co-leader Claudia Roth told ARD television. “We are not interested just in governing. We are interested in politics.”

Both the CDU and the SPD ruled out a coalition with the Left Party.

The political deadlock was not to the markets’ liking yesterday. German stocks tumbled, and the euro fell to its lowest level against the dollar in seven weeks.

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