Germany's Schroeder Sets National Elections a Year Early

A major local defeat for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party could lead to a shift on the national level. Schroeder is calling for national elections to be held one year early after his Social Democratic Party lost power to the opposition Christian Democrats Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous state.

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A defeat for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder could lead to a change in Germany's government. Schroeder's Social Democratic Party lost power yesterday in the country's most populous state. That prompted the chancellor to call for an early national election. On the world stage, Schroeder is known as a critic of the war in Iraq. In Germany, though, he is blamed for a bad economy, and after his trouble became apparent, German stocks actually went up in early trading today. NPR's Emily Harris reports from North Rhine-Westphalia, the scene of Schroeder's defeat.

(Soundbite of crowd of people)

EMILY HARRIS reporting:

Members of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, packed into a white tent yesterday evening to eagerly count down to the end of voting day and to what turned out to be the end of an era. Moments after polls closed, German television announced the first election prognosis.

(Soundbite of German broadcast and people cheering)

HARRIS: Exit surveys reflected what official results would later confirm. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats were out of governing North Rhine-Westphalia, and the CDU was in with a solid 7-point lead. CDU member Yergin Brautmiller(ph) was already thinking about the next target, Berlin.

Mr. YERGIN BRAUTMILLER (Christian Democratic Union): As you can see from the result now, the overall impression that something has to happen, that there has to be a change in Germany. That is part of the explanation for tonight.

HARRIS: Because such a big chunk of German voters live in North Rhine-Westphalia, the CDU always saw this election in part as a referendum on Schroeder's national leadership. But the conservatives were counting on a year and a half before national elections, time to get organized and perhaps prove themselves by governing well in North Rhine-Westphalia. Shortly after the polls closed, though, in a surprise move, one newspaper called the coup of a loser, Schroeder announced he wanted federal elections as soon as this fall, a year ahead of schedule. It's a quick challenge that political science Professor Garo Neugvauer(ph) expects Schroeder to lose.

Professor GARO NEUGVAUER (Political Science): There is no foreseeable change in the present conditions. The labor market is weak, the economy is weak. There are no persons, no politicians and no program which could convince those part of the electorate who didn't vote for the Social Democrats to vote for the Social Democrats in six, seven or eight months.

HARRIS: The dismal economy and high unemployment have dogged Schroeder and split his SPD party. Traditional party faithful were unhappy with cuts to health and welfare benefits that aim to improve the economy and business climate. But the SPD also lost in North Rhine-Westphalia because of voters like 44-year-old restaurant owner Klaus Becker(ph), who thinks Schroeder's painful economic policies will help in the long run, but his party won't.

Mr. KLAUS BECKER (Restaurant Owner): It's not bye-bye, Schroeder. It's bye-bye, SPD. The problem is, Schroeder is a good man, but his party is the wrong one.

HARRIS: German media is skeptical about the future success of either one. Schroeder scraped together a re-election victory two years ago by opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq. Leading news magazine Der Spiegel today writes that President George Bush could now invade France, and Schroeder would still lose re-election. Emily Harris, NPR News, Dusseldorf.

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