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Germany

Road to Early Polls Fraught With Obstacles

Hungering for new elections, Chancellor Schröder has called for a vote of confidence this week. DW-WORLD spoke to an expert on German constitutional law about the possible outcomes to this risky undertaking.

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Schröder will actually be hoping for defeat on Friday


Gerhard Schröder set in motion a complex constitutional mechanism when he applied for a vote of confidence in the Bundestag. The chancellor hopes that parliament will reject him, allowing for new elections to take place in the fall. DW-WORLD talked to Christian Pestalozza, a professor of German constitutional law at Berlin's Free University, about the complex and circuitous route Schröder has taken to get his way.

DW-WORLD: For weeks Germany has been arguing about whether Schröder is abusing the concept of a vote of confidence to force new elections. Green party parliamentarian Werner Schulz, for example, has accused Schröder of wanting to bend Germany 's constitution as it suits him. What do you think?

Christian Pestalozza: The vote of confidence is regulated in article 68 of the constitution. It refers to an application from the federal chancellor to the Bundestag (the lower house of parliament) to pronounce their confidence in him. The prerequisite is that there's a disruption or dispute between the chancellor and the parliamentary majority. The vote of confidence is meant to create clarity for the chancellor who says: "Now I want to know for sure whether we want to continue or not."

Bundestag Plenarsaal

On Friday, the German parliament will not have any empty chairs

Actually the constitution foresees an application aimed at a positive vote of confidence. The assumption is that the chancellor hopes he will indeed be accorded parliament's confidence. But the constitution doesn't forbid striving for clarification in a negative way. It wouldn't be an abuse.

When would it be an abuse?

One can speak of abuse if the chancellor and the majority of parliament try to establish a lack of confidence although they know for sure that they could continue to work together. If they pronounce a lack of confidence aiming only to cause new elections, it would not be in the spirit of article 68. That would be manipulation.

Do you think there is a genuine lack of confidence?

Deutsche Flagge und Teil der Reichstagskuppel

The German flag on top of the German parliament

Where? I can't see it. Criticism has come repeatedly from the parliamentary groups of the governing coalition, but that's not enough. The majority in the Bundestag -- which also requires several members from the government coalition -- must say we cannot work with this chancellor anymore. I haven't seen this situation documented anywhere. It must be verifiable. I only see the usual conflicts. If nothing happens, I can't see how they can use article 68.

Assuming Schröder is successful with his vote of no confidence, what will happen?

The chancellor must then ask the president to dissolve the Bundestag. He has three weeks to decide whether to dissolve it or not. The president must first verify: Is it a serious situation of lack of confidence? Is there really a disruption and is the chancellor's work hamstrung?

The constitutional court has said that in resolving this legal question the president should take the chancellor's assessment as the basis for his decision. If the president goes along with the chancellor's assessment, the question arises: Does he order parliament to be dissolved? Here the president has some discretionary scope. Even if he believes the preconditions of article 68 exist, he isn't obliged to dissolve parliament. He can also say, "You must continue. You (parliament) can elect a new chancellor with the (existing) majority."

Read further to find out why Schröder doesn't just resign.

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