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Court Affirms Right to Early German Vote

Judges say dissolving Parliament last month was justified. Analysts predict conservative Angela Merkel will triumph in Sept. 18 poll.

August 26, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — An attempt to stop early elections scheduled for September was denied Thursday by Germany's Constitutional Court, which found that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's inability to hold a legislative majority justified dissolving Parliament and calling for a new vote.

The ruling came as Schroeder and his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, campaigned in this rain-swept country of voters angry over high unemployment and years of a troubled economy. Schroeder and his Social Democrats are trailing in the polls, and analysts predict that Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats, will become the nation's first female chancellor Sept. 18.

The country's highest court was drawn into the political equation when two legislators in Schroeder's coalition questioned the legality of early elections. The chancellor's term was to expire next year, but he called for a new poll after Social Democrats lost control of a key state and it became apparent that liberals in his party would not back his economic and social reforms.

Schroeder said the scenario left the government in a political deadlock that would evolve into a crisis for Europe's biggest economy. The legislators challenged Schroeder's assessment, arguing that he deliberately lost a confidence vote and violated the German Constitution.

By the time the court received the case in July, however, the legality of the elections seemed a nettlesome afterthought to a campaign that was well underway.

In announcing its 7-1 ruling against stopping the elections, the court in Karlsruhe curtly suggested that it was in an unenviable predicament.

"The court was seen as having had the choice between the plague and cholera," said Winfried Hassemer, the court's vice president.

"The plague is the initiation of a state crisis with the court trying to stop the election campaign that is already sweeping the country. And cholera is the attempt to avoid a state crisis by bending the constitution. In this view, the court could only make mistakes."

The judges' ruling suggested that they were aware that Germany's 11.6% unemployment rate, dwindling consumer confidence and Schroeder's weak political standing would jeopardize progress on improving the economy and passing labor and welfare reforms. The court came to a similar conclusion in 1983 when Chancellor Helmut Kohl lost a confidence vote in Parliament.

Werner Schulz, a Green Party member who filed the suit, said the court ruling was "a defeat for parliamentary democracy in Germany."

"What's been strengthened by this ruling is the role of the chancellor in the system. So in the future every time a chancellor suspects, assumes or even thinks to assume that he has no majority anymore, he is allowed to send home the entire Parliament."

Schroeder said electing a new Parliament "has been my prime intention because I'm seeking a new mandate for my reform policy -- a policy that will make Germany strong again without threatening social cohesion."

Merkel, a physicist raised in former communist East Germany, is seeking more sweeping reforms than is Schroeder and said the court decision would give voters the chance "to venture a new beginning with a conservative-led government instead of a disappointing zigzag course."

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