German Vote May Give Schroeder a Break

A close parliamentary election in Germany may keep Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his Social Democrats in power. Exit polls show the opposition Christian Democrats, led by Angela Merkel, with only a slight edge.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now two stories about parliamentary elections overseas, beginning in Germany, where there's no clear winner tonight. The opposition Christian Democrats eked out a very narrow victory over Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats. But neither party won a majority of seats in parliament, and prospects for forming a stable political coalition government are murky at best. NPR's Rachel Martin is following the election results in Berlin.

Hello, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Have the leaders of the two parties made any statements tonight?

MARTIN: At this point, both Gerhard Schroeder and his Social Democrats as well as Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats are claiming victory despite the fact that only a percentage point separates the two parties. Angela Merkel spoke to her supporters shortly after the initial exit polls came out, and she admitted that she hoped her party would have performed better, but that she was still determined to form a governing coalition.

Schroeder did the same thing. He criticized the Christian Democrats for claiming victory, and said it was he and the Social Democrats who have a mandate and it will be them that form the next government. This is where the horse-trading and politicking begins as the major party leaders try to ally with the smaller parties that could give them the majority they need to govern.

ELLIOTT: So neither of these parties, the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrats, did as well as they did in the last election. What are some of those small parties that they'll be going to now for help?

MARTIN: Well, the two parties that actually came out on top in this election were the Free Democrats, a pro-business party, and the Left Party, which was formed by a group of disenchanted Social Democrats and the former Communist Party of East Germany. The Left Party won an unexpected 8.7 percent of the vote. And that party campaigned on a platform of strong social welfare, claiming that both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats would pass economic reforms that would eat into welfare and unemployment benefits.

Angela Merkel is the first candidate for chancellor from the former East, and her party had hoped that she'd be able to draw votes from the East. But that didn't happen, and the Christian Democrats won only about 25 percent of the East German vote. Merkel also lost 9 percent in south Germany, which has been the traditional stronghold of the Christian Democrats, and she lost the majority vote in her home state, as well.

ELLIOTT: So what are the prospects for either of these major parties, the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats, forming a stable ruling coalition in Germany?

MARTIN: Well, at this point, it really is anyone's game. If the Christian Democrats wanted to form a coalition with their traditional allies, the Free Democrats, they wouldn't have enough votes. And if the Social Democrats wanted to partner with their traditional allies, the Green Party, they wouldn't have enough votes. That means either the main parties would have to break with traditional alliances and possibly partner with another third party, or they could form what's called a grand coalition in which both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats could end up having to work together in the next German government.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Rachel Martin in Berlin, thanks.

MARTIN: Thank you.

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