German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder huddled with his ministers Wednesday ahead of a vote this week that will set the wheels in motion for early elections expected to end his seven-year hold on power.
A lonely Schröder wants a new mandate for his reforms
Sources said Schröder told his cabinet he would justify his decision to call a no confidence vote in an address before parliament Friday by saying that his government cannot operate effectively, since it "lacks the ability to function" due to divisions within his party and a strong opposition.
The chancellor stunned the country last month after suffering the latest in a string of state poll debacles by announcing he would seek national elections one year ahead of schedule to shore up his ailing government.
His spokesman Bela Anda later denied the account of Wednesday's closed-door meeting, saying only that Schröder made his decision based on whether "he could have constant faith in a parliamentary majority for his policies."
A source told Reuters that Schröder himself would abstain in the vote, but he did not explicitly urge ministers to do the same. After the meeting, Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin (photo) told Der Spiegel weekly that he would abstain from the vote and he assumed several other ministers would do the same.
However, the leader of Schröder's Social Democrats, Franz Müntefering, has urged deputies from the SPD and their junior partner, the Greens, to back the measure to trigger early elections by abstaining.
Opposition to plan
But the number of Social Democrat parliamentarians not willing to comply is climbing. Hans-Peter Kemper, regional SPD chief in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia sees no point in pretending during the vote on Friday that all of a sudden he mistrusts the chancellor.
"On Friday, I definitely will not abstain from voting. I'll give my support for chancellor Schröder, although he doesn't want it at this stage. I'm not willing to play stupid tactical games," he said. "Our regional branch in North Rhine-Westphalia has always stood firmly behind the chancellor, so why should we pretend that's different on Friday?"
Another long-standing Social Democrat parliamentarian, Rudolf Bindig, says he'd consider voting against the chancellor only if he didn't agree with his reform drive. But the contrary is the case, he said.
"We've had our problems, but also achieved quite a lot in the interest of the country," he said. "We should aim to pursue this policy as long as we can, and early elections would severely jeopardize this objective."
If all goes as planned -- which is still far from certain -- President Horst Köhler will dissolve the parliament within 21 days and order new elections, probably on September 18.
Schröder's bid, which he has said is aimed at winning a fresh mandate for his reform drive after plumbing record depths for several months in the polls, is a typically bold move by a chancellor known for surprises.
Gerhard Schröder, left, and CDU head Angela Merkel
But analysts say Schröder's famous luck is running out and have widely tipped his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, to trounce him and become Germany's first female chancellor.
"It is highly likely that Red-Green (the Social-Democrats and junior coalition partner, the Greens) will lose," said Manfred Güllner, head of the independent opinion research institute Forsa, referring to the ruling coalition. "If the election date had remained in 2006, the government might have had the chance of seeing its (economic) reforms take effect so that voters could feel it. They don't have that chance any more."
It's the economy, dummkopf!
Germans are angry that Schröder has failed to keep his seven-year-old promise to drive down unemployment and that they now in fact have more reason to fear for their jobs than at any other time since World War II.
At the same time, his reforms have not produced anything close to the robust recovery the country needs and the economy is still stagnant.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, locked in a dispute with Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac over the EU budget, went as far last week as to offer up Germany as an example of how not to manage a 21st century economy.
"Britain supports a social Europe, but it must be a social Europe which is adapted to today's world. We have to understand why some European economies are creating jobs, and others are not," Blair said in a guest column for Germany's top selling newspaper, Bild.
Opinion makers have lamented the spectacular failure of the SPD-Greens alliance to tackle the country's most pressing concerns and accused it of dithering, mismanagement and self-indulgence.
"Red-Green, that alliance born in the world of visions, proved itself not to be ready for real life," the influential newsweekly Der Spiegel wrote in a withering political obituary.
"Real reforms were promised but in the end it was again the same paper-shuffling that got the bureaucracy excited but contributed little to alleviating, let alone solving, the most urgent problems of our time."
The coalition swept to power in 1998 with a mandate for change after 16 years of conservative rule under Helmut Kohl, known as the chancellor of German unity.
The youthful Schröder, now 61, and his vice-chancellor and foreign minister Joschka Fischer, now 57 and a veteran of the 1968 protest movement, pledged to set the country on a course for renewed prosperity.
But even the latest reforms -- including a labor market overhaul introduced in January -- have failed to cut unemployment and are ripping new holes in the public purse.
Amid prevailing gloom in the economy, one bit of political news sparked a jump in this month's main indicator of business sentiment: the prospect of early elections.