If Germany is to go to the polls this autumn, Chancellor Schröder will have to set in motion a complex constitutional mechanism for bringing the elections forward.
Resorting to desperate measures
First of all, the chancellor has to submit a motion to parliament to establish whether he still has majority support. The Bundestag vote then has to take place 48 hours after Schröder puts forward what's known as the vote of confidence, set to take place on July 1.
If the chancellor loses this vote, new elections can take place earlier than planned, in accordance with Article 68 of the Constitution, which states that "if a motion of a federal chancellor for a vote of confidence is not assented to by the majority of the members of the Bundestag, the federal president may, upon the proposal of the federal chancellor, dissolve the Bundestag within twenty-one days. The right to dissolve shall lapse as soon as the Bundestag with the majority of its members elects another federal chancellor."
The operative word here is "may." The president can act upon the chancellor's proposal to dissolve the Bundestag, but he doesn't have to. It's up to him to decide whether the chancellor's decision is in keeping with constitutional principles.
For the time being, President Horst Köhler (photo) has remained silent on the issue. According to his spokesperson, he was carefully considering the matter before meeting with Schröder on Monday.
A further option available to Berlin is the constructive vote of no confidence laid out in Article 67, which states that "The Bundestag can express its lack of confidence in the federal chancellor only by electing a successor with the majority of its members and by requesting the federal president to dismiss the federal chancellor. The federal president must comply with the request and appoint the person elected."
This, however, presupposes a candidate for office is already waiting in the wings, who can depend on the support of a Bundestag majority. The constructive no-confidence vote makes it harder to remove a chancellor because opponents of the chancellor not only must disagree with his or her governing but also must agree on a replacement
Early elections in Germany are highly unusual.
The first time they took place was in 1972, initiated by Chancellor Willy Brandt. He forced the premature dissolution of the Bundestag by President Gustav Heinemann in order to secure a stable majority in the ensuing election, which he won with an impressive relative majority of nearly 45 percent.
West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, center, is congratulated by Social Democratic Party's floor leader Herbert Wehner, left, back to camera, when Schmidt has won the vote of confidence. Surrounding are Social Democrats and members of the Liberals on Feb. 05, 1982 in the Bonn parliament. Social Democrat German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder linked parliament's vote on the German deployment in the war against terrorism on Friday, Nov. 16, 2001, to a vote of confidence in his three-year old government in coalition with the Greens. The confidence vote on Friday will be only the fourth in postwar Germany.
Then, in February 1982, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called a vote of confidence, winning by 269-224 votes -- despite tensions between the coalition partners, the SDP and the FDP. The Bundestag remained unchanged, but the coalition collapsed seven months later when the liberals joined forces with the CDU. He was subsequently voted out of office in October 1982 through a constructive vote of no confidence.
In December 1982, it was Helmut Kohl's turn. He lost by 8-218 votes, with CDU and FDP MPs abstaining. Germany went to the polls and voted Kohl back for a second term.
In November 2001, Gerhard Schröder called for a vote of confidence on German participation in the US-led "Enduring Freedom" mission in Afghanistan -- the largest ever military intervention by the Bundeswehr. He won by just two votes.