The race towards early general elections in Germany has begun in earnest, although many experts warn it is by no means certain that polls will take place in the autumn.
This room could be getting some new occupants
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder deliberately lost a parliamentary confidence vote on Friday in a bid to trigger early elections and his Social Democratic Party as well as the opposition started campaigning on Saturday even though it is still unclear whether the president will dissolve parliament in the face of constitutional challenges.
The embattled leader said he wanted elections 12 months ahead of schedule because he needed to know if he had the country's support to continue with a series of economic reforms which have turned off many of his party's traditional working-class, according to former vice-president of the constitutional court, Ernst Gottfried Mahrenholz. He also said that Schröder's given reasons for wanting to dissolve parliament were "not completely plausible."
Schröder speaking before the confidence vote
"But by and large there are sufficient grounds for the question to be passed to the president," Mahrenholz told Phoenix television.
President Horst Köhler has until July 22 to decide whether to dissolve the parliament, something which polls show a majority of the population wants.
One expert told the AFP news agency it would be "deeply damaging" for Germany, saddled with high unemployment and a stagnant economy, if it were not allowed to go to the polls this year.
"Most Germans would see elections as an act of liberation. If they do not take place, then it could be deeply damaging for the federal republic," Professor Hans Herbert von Arnim of the German Academy for Political Science in the western city of Speyer said. "Constitutionally, the case for elections is watertight."
Still, there are still hurdles to overcome if early elections are to be held. The safeguards were built into Germany's Basic Law as a reaction to the chaos of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s which led to Adolf Hitler's rise.
Election strategies planned
Regardless of the obstacles remaining, the main parties were pressing ahead with plans for their electoral campaigns.
Leaders of Schröder's Social Democratic Party are to meet on Monday to formulate their strategy while the opposition Christian Union bloc is set to announce its plans on July 11.
The conservatives, lead by Angela Merkel (photo), have leaked some details of their campaign program, which seeks to spur growth with lower income taxes. According to the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the top income tax rate will be cut from 42 percent to 39 percent. An increase of the value-added tax, or VAT, by two points to 18 percent is also planned.
Most polls currently give the Union a 20-point lead. A victory for the conservatives in September would see opposition leader Angela Merkel become Germany's first woman chancellor.
Why not resign?
In another bad sign for Schröder, a poll released on Friday showed half of Germans believe he should have simply resigned if he wanted to force an election.
Resorting to the tactic of a no confidence vote was "dishonest," according to 49 percent of respondents in the independent opinion research institute Forsa poll.
Schröder himself argued Friday that it was perfectly acceptable under the constitution to follow the no confidence vote route as opposed to standing down.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer stresses a point as he delivers a speech during the German parliament debates a confidence vote in the German parliament in Berlin
But just when it looks as if Schröder's seven-year-old government is doomed, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (photo) reminded Schröder's rivals of what happened in 2002 when the chancellor overtook his conservative opponent at the last moment to win re-election.
"You had the furniture packed, the pictures were ordered and you lost again. So look out," Fischer said.