JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder suffered a resounding defeat today in local elections in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia, Schroeder's Social Democratic Party was voted out in favor of the conservative Christian Democrats. The blow could affect Schroeder's chances for a third term. After the results came in, he called for early national elections. NPR's Emily Harris is in Dusseldorf, the capital of North Rhine Westphalia and joins us.
EMILY HARRIS reporting:
LUDDEN: How big a defeat was this for Schroeder?
HARRIS: This is huge. The Social Democratic Party has ruled North Rhine Westphalia for 39 years. And the Christian Democrats, who won tonight, are just ecstatic that they have gotten ahold of this state. This is the most populous state in Germany and the one with the biggest GDP, the largest economy. It's an industrial area traditionally, and a lot of that has changed recently but, still, a very important economic state for Germany. And now the Social Democrats are out. And it's really seen as a national referendum as well.
LUDDEN: Do the Christian Democrats get an outright win, or are they going to have to find a coalition?
HARRIS: It looks like they're going to have to find a coalition partner, but that was expected going in. And they're likely to join with the Liberal Democrats to have a majority here.
LUDDEN: What were the issues in the vote?
HARRIS: The big issue, really, was the economy. Germany's economy is in the doldrums. It has been very bad for the past several years. The unemployment rate has been rising; it fell slightly recently, but it's really right around 10 percent. Even here in North Rhine Westphalia, which is, you know, the economic powerhouse of Germany, the unemployment rate in some areas is about 20 percent, which is as high as it is in the depressed areas of Eastern Germany. So the economy is really on everyone's minds.
LUDDEN: When these results came in, Chancellor Schroeder called for early elections. They're due next year, but now he says he'll ask for them possibly as early as this fall. What do you think he's thinking?
HARRIS: Well, a couple of things: One, it give the Christian Democratic Union less time to get organized. The current leader of the CDU is quite unpopular, a woman named Angela Merkel. Also, Schroeder said that he wants new elections early because he needs clear support from the people to continue with economic reforms he's been pushing through to try to get the economy going again. They're quite unpopular, and he says he wants a mandate from the people to--before he goes ahead with any more. It's not certain that elections will be held early; there's some parliamentary hoops to jump through. But it looks like most of the political parties want them.
LUDDEN: NPR's Emily Harris, in Dusseldorf, thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
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