The head of Germany's ruling Social Democrats has called on his party's members of parliament to abstain from the upcoming vote of confidence, that would ensure federal elections will be brought forward by a year.
Chancellor Schröder handed in his request for a vote of confidence
The head of Germany's ruling Social Democrat Party (SPD) Franz Müntefering has asked his party's members of parliament to abstain in this Friday's vote of confidence in parliament, the first step towards dissolving the parliament and paving the way for early federal elections. This would demonstrate that the chancellor no longer has majority backing within his own coalition government.
The CDU celebrates victory in North Rhine-Westphalia
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder himself had announced his desire for early elections after a landslide victory for the opposition Christian democrats in Germany’s most populous federal state and long a SPD stronghold, North Rhine-Westphalia, last month. The humiliating defeat prompted the chancellor, by his own admission, to seek a new mandate for his government's unpopular economic reforms.
Although Müntefering will still have to persuade parliamentarians to abstain, it looks almost certain that this will be the way the ruling Social Democrats will comply with the chancellor's wish to have early elections on September 18 this year.
Abstaining is the best solution
An earlier suggestion according to which Social Democrat cabinet ministers would have had to abstain from voting has meanwhile been thrown overboard. That solution would have come across as too much of a political farce.
Müntefering and Schröder
However, Müntefering's proposal could also appear ridiculous, if implemented, with the ruling coalition likely to push through a series of bills on Thursday with a stable majority. But senior SPD member Gernot Erler defended the plan.
"If some 200 MPs from the SPD abstain from the vote, it should be easier for the federal president to see that early elections are supported by a strong majority," said Erler. "This move would not be as tricky as forcing a couple of Social Democrat cabinet members to abstain. So, I think this is the best solution to pave the way for dissolving parliament."
Will the Greens play the game?
German president Horst Köhler will have to give the go-ahead for dissolving parliament, should the chancellor lose the vote of confidence as planned. The SPD’s junior coalition partner, the ecologist Greens, haven’t decided yet whether they're willing to play along.
"The idea of having early elections wasn't ours to start with," said Claudia Roth, the Greens' party co-leader. "But since this is the wish of the chancellor, we'll try and not stand in the way, also considering the strong wish for early elections among the population."
According to Roth, the Greens MPs may also abstain from voting. But it was still too early to say what they will actually do.
"It's been common practice in our party to first debate things thoroughly within our parliamentary group," said Roth.
An artificial confidence vote?
Uncertainties will remain on the bumpy road to early elections. Even if President Köhler agrees to dissolve parliament, the Social Democrats may trip over the legal aspects of their political gamble. Müntefering’s proposal may raise the eyebrows of judges at the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.
Some smaller parties, which are not represented in the federal parliament, have already announced they plan to take the matter before the Karlsruhe court. They don't believe it's legitimate to bring about an artificial vote of confidence and rig its outcome in advance, while at the same the ruling government adopts bills with a stable majority of its own. But the SPD's Erler doesn't accept such arguments.
"We're confident that with our planned procedure, the likelihood of early elections being accepted by the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe will increase," said Erler. "Certainly, the option of having a couple of cabinet ministers demonstrate they don't support the chancellor anymore isn't very convincing, considering that they've worked closely with Schröder day in day out."