Chancellor Schröder on Sunday resisted mounting pressure to step aside to break the political deadlock gripping Germany following an inconclusive general election one week ago.
Schröder's ruling out paving the way for Merkel, for now
Schröder said he saw no reason to relinquish his claim to a third term as German leader, despite his Social Democrats (SPD) losing the election by a narrow margin to conservative challenger Angela Merkel's Christian Union alliance (CDU/CSU) in the September 18 poll.
"There are no grounds at all to change my position just because some media and the Union are putting unseemly pressure (on me)," Schröder told ARD public television when asked if he still claimed the chancellery.
He said the question of who would lead the country would only be resolved in the course of horse-trading to form a ruling coalition.
"One will then have to address this question and I am sure it will be resolved at that time," he said.
Schröder and his conservative challenger Angela Merkel both laid claims to the chancellery after neither party managed to win a ruling majority in the election last Sunday.
The inconclusive result has sparked a race to form a stable government, with a "grand coalition" between the Social Democrats and conservatives appearing increasingly likely. The two sides met last week for exploratory talks and agreed to do so again.
Meanwhile, Franz Müntefering, chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), said on Sunday his party will wait a week before deciding whether to enter talks on a grand coalition to resolve the political stalemate.
Müntefering said he would wait until after a by-election in Dresden on Oct. 2 that was triggered by one candidate's death.
"After the sounding-out meeting, and after the by-election in Dresden, it will be decided we can go on to negotiations with the conservatives," Müntefering (photo) said. "All the jostling and speculation are not helpful now."
Questions hover over leadership claim
But that's precisely what has erupted in Germany following what has been one of the most ambiguous election results in the country's postwar history.
Over the weekend, conservative leaders, several newspaper columnists and a handful of members of Schröder's own SPD raised the pressure on the chancellor by saying that Schröder should consider bowing out of the race to break the political deadlock gripping Europe's largest country.
The deputy head of the chancellor's Social Democrats (SPD), Kurt Beck, said he expected a "grand coalition" spanning left and right would eventually take power but that it was unlikely Schröder would lead it.
"In a democracy one should never say never," Beck told the Focus news magazine when asked about the prospect of Schröder throwing in the towel.
"But we will not say from the start that we are ready to make this step," he added.
CDU general secretary Volker Kauder, said there would be no deal without its leader.
"It must be evident that the strongest party determines who will be chancellor," Kauder told German news agency DPA. "If there is no agreement on this question, coalition negotiations make no sense."
Hesse state premier Roland Koch of the CDU said the SPD had to withdraw its claim to the chancellery.
"The CDU has the right to name a chancellor," said Koch. "The SPD are not yet ready to accept that. Schröder has made them his emotional hostage."
SPD says Schröder must go
Merkel believes her party's lead, however narrow, justifies her bid. Her Christian Union alliance won 35.2 percent of the vote and 225 seats in the German parliament, finishing less than a point ahead of the Social Democrats with 34.4 percent and 222 seats.
The media-savvy Schröder has insisted that he is more capable of forming a stable ruling majority than Merkel because of the SPD's surprisingly strong result after months of trailing the conservatives in opinion polls -- largely attributed to Schröder's campaign charisma and a smooth performance in a television debate with Merkel in early September.
But as the euphoria of their come-from-behind score wore off, some Social Democrats too appeared to acknowledge the game was up.
The deputy head of the SPD's parliamentary group, Gernot Erler, said the party would have to show some flexibility in potential negotiations on forming a government with the Christian Union alliance.
"The Union cannot enter into coalition talks with the SPD saying 'take it or leave it'. But neither can the SPD," Erler told the weekly Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
He noted, however, that only Schröder and SPD leader Franz Müntefering had the power to decide what conditions they would set for a grand coalition.
"That includes the personnel questions," he said.
Meanwhile, members of the Green Party, junior partners in Schröder's outgoing coalition, began to raise their own doubts about how long the chancellor could cling to his office.
Greens co-leader Reinhard Bütikofer told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung Schröder had no chance of a third term.
"The Union will provide the chancellor," he said. "I think it is impossible that Gerhard Schröder will be able to enforce his personal claim to power."
Even as both sides showed no signs of backing down, a key SPD deputy Johannes Kahrs came up with an unprecedented plan to rotate the top job.
"Schröder must remain chancellor for the first two years," Kahrs told daily Die Welt. German television earlier reported that Schröder, 61, favors such a rotation modeled on a 1984-88 Israeli government led by Shimon Peres and then Yitzhak Shamir.
"The solution that both sides rule for two years each has the consensus support of SPD parliament deputies," Kahrs added, although there were doubts about whether such an uneasy rotation would conform to the constitution.
The conservatives however have rejected the idea.