The chancellor's call to Germans to seal his fate is one of his greatest political gambles yet. Public opinion is behind early elections, but does Gerhard Schröder really stand any chance of being re-elected?
Merkel (left) and Schröder (right) are likely to face off in real life soon
Opinion polls ahead of Sunday's ballot gave the Social Democrats, who had ruled in Germany's largest federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia for 39 years, little hope of holding onto the reins of power.
But even in the face of that bitter expectation, politicians and public alike were nothing if not unprepared for Gerhard Schröder's announcement.
Schröder on Monday
His political ambush is viewed as a scrambling attempt to cling to what power he has left by catching his opponents off-guard. But analysts are predicting a foregone conclusion in favor of the conservative CDU. The loss of the SPD stronghold was a clear statement to the government in Berlin that the country is prepared to invest more faith in the opposition than in the current leadership.
Cabinet stays as is
Although the clarity of the message moved the chancellor to plead the case of a premature poll, it did not prompt him to consider passing the gauntlet to anyone else. Just hours after the election defeat, Schröder said he would not reshuffle his cabinet before leading the party, which voted unanimously in favor of early elections, to the fall campaign.
And when he bangs the drum for his red-green coalition later this year, his most likely challenger will be Germany's first female chancellor candidate, Christian Democrat Angela Merkel.
Roland Koch, State Premier of Hesse, said it "goes without saying" that Angela Merkel will be the elected CDU candidate.
"I don't know anyone in the party who is of a different opinion," he added.
Although Merkel has not been officially elected, the decision is expected when the CDU and CSU sister party executive boards meet next Monday.
Other CDU members said they shared Koch's optimism. Christian Wulff, the state premier of Lower Saxony, said he "would be surprised if Merkel were not elected as the party's chancellor candidate."
And speaking on Germany's ZDF public broadcaster, CDU General Secretary Volker Kauder said the "message of the North Rhine-Westphalia election results was that the union would win with Angela Merkel."
A one-woman show or a coalition?
But what would await Germany under its first ever woman leader? The conservatives have some way to go to flesh out their policies, and after Schröder's surprise announcement yesterday, they have less time to get their agenda in order.
Another question on the country's lips is whether the conservative CDU/CSU would rule alone or whether they would form a coalition.
The neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), led by Guido Westerwelle, on Monday said they would join forces with the conservatives in a coalition should they win the election.
Welcomed all round
Schröder's announcement has been very widely accepted with open arms. Green party coalition partners see it as a chance to start a new offensive. Reinhard Bütikofer, the party's co-chairman, spoke to German public television ZDF about the advantages of early elections.
Bütikofer (right) and Greens co-chairwoman Claudia Roth
"The CDU will no longer be able to use its strategy of blocking everything and simultaneously complaining that there is no progress," he said.
In an interview with the Sächsische Zeitung, Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin said he was certain that the Green party would fight the election campaign with Joschka Fischer at the helm. He said he thought the coalition stood a good chance of being re-elected in a federal ballot.
In a flash poll conducted on the back of Sunday's election debacle, 70 percent of those asked said they thought that a fresh ballot this year would be more beneficial to the opposition than the ruling coalition. And 54 percent said getting rid of the devil they know could be the answer to heaving Germany out of its current misery.
Election on Sept. 18?
The latest date for a general election would be Sept. 18 as Schröder will present a motion of confidence in his government to parliament on July 1, officials said on Monday.
The leader of Schröder's Social Democratic Party, Franz Münterfering, said that July 1 was the last sitting of the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, before the summer recess.
If the motion of confidence is rejected, German President Horst Köhler then has 21 days in which to dissolve parliament. The general election must take place within 60 days of the dissolution of parliament.
An election in September would be 12 months ahead of the scheduled date of September 2006.