August 25, 2005

German court clears way for September 18 election

By Diana Niedernhoefer

KARLSRUHE, Germany (Reuters) - Germany's highest court
removed the final hurdle on Thursday to a September 18 general
election that polls suggest will oust Chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder and bring the conservative opposition to power.

Responding to a challenge by two parliamentarians, the
Federal Constitutional Court voted 7-1 that President Horst
Koehler had acted correctly in dissolving parliament last month
and calling the election one year ahead of schedule.

Schroeder himself had called in May for the vote to be
brought forward, in hope of a new mandate for his economic
policies after his Social Democrats lost a regional election in
their longtime stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia.

But two rebel deputies in his coalition argued that a July
1 confidence vote the chancellor pushed for and then
deliberately lost to force an early election violated the

They challenged Koehler's decision to endorse Schroeder's
confidence vote, leaving the court with the final say.

"We have reached a clear verdict," presiding judge Winfried
Hassemer told the court in a ruling carried live nationwide on
all major television stations.

"The decision by the President to dissolve parliament and
fix elections for September 18 is not in conflict with the

Opinion polls suggest the Social Democrats will lose the
election to the conservative Christian Democrats led by Angela
Merkel, an easterner who wants to reform Germany's tax system
and labor market in order to boost growth and cut unemployment.

She would be Germany's first woman chancellor.


Germany's constitution, framed after World War Two with the
political instability of the pre-war Weimar Republic in mind,
makes it difficult to dissolve parliament before the end of a
regular four-year term.

But with all the country's leading political parties in
favor of elections and the campaign now in full swing, the
court had not been expected to disrupt the early vote.

In 1983, the last time the court was called on to make a
similar ruling, it upheld the then-president's decision to
allow an early election even though the chancellor, Helmut
Kohl, had a comfortable majority.

It is the fourth time in post-war German history that
elections have been brought forward. The last time was in 1990
in response to German reunification.

"There is only one thing that really matters: that the
general election will take place in about three weeks," said
Andreas Rees of German bank HVB Group.

"Otherwise, a gridlock in German politics would have
occurred with severe negative consequences for financial
markets and the general economic outlook."

In pushing for early elections, Schroeder said he needed a
fresh mandate to continue his program of economic reforms.

He argued that he lacked support in parliament and within
his own party to push on with measures that have restructured
Germany's welfare state but failed so far to make a serious
dent in unemployment, which stands near a post-war high.

Merkel's conservatives have pledged to go further than
Schroeder in reforming Europe's largest economy. They want to
raise sales tax to fund a lowering of non-wage labor costs,
loosen rules on firing people and cut income tax.

On the foreign front, the conservatives and their preferred
allies, the liberal Free Democrats, are vowing to improve
strained ties with the United States.