Wed, Sep 21, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Merkel tries to strengthen backing, grab chancellorship

AFP , BERLIN

Angela Merkel, still hoping to become Germany's first woman chancellor despite an inconclusive general election, was to ask her party for fresh backing yesterday before talks to form a governing coalition.

Germany was thrown into turmoil after Sunday's vote failed to produce a clear winner and left Merkel and current Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder both claiming they should lead Europe's biggest economy.

The political stalemate launched what is essentially a race to see which candidate can build a stable alliance first.

Merkel's opposition Christian Democrats eked out a narrow victory over Schroeder's Social Democrats but the chancellor refused to concede.

The failure to secure a ruling majority was seen by the press as leaving Merkel vulnerable to attack from within her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

In an indication of her weakened position, Merkel said she would ask the CDU to re-elect her as parliamentary group leader yesterday.

Merkel was forced to remind Schroeder she had actually won the election, albeit without a governable majority with her preferred junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats.

"That is a clear mandate to govern," she said on Monday. "The election campaign is over, the voters have had their say and we are the strongest party in parliament."

Schroeder forced through the election 12 months early in an attempt to obtain a fresh mandate for his controversial economic reforms.

But German analysts said the ambivalent result showed that voters believed the country needed reform but were unwilling to shoulder the sacrifices that might accompany it.

The lack of a new government has fed political uncertainty in a country struggling with 11.4 percent unemployment, a swelling public deficit and stagnant economic growth.

Party officials have already begun sounding out possible partners in a bid to form a government.

Merkel said she planned to speak to all political parties about a coalition, except the Left Party, a mix of disgruntled Social Democrats and ex-communists.

The Social Democrats also excluded talks with the Left Party and said they had sent invitations for talks to the conservatives and the Free Democrats.

Merkel, a 51-year-old from communist East Germany, had been tipped to win the election.

But provisional official results gave the Christian Democrats 35.2 percent, one of their worst scores since World War II, and only narrowly ahead of the Social Democrats (SPD) at 34.3 percent.

The Free Democrats scored a surprisingly strong 9.8 percent, but not enough for Merkel to form the center-right majority she said she needed to rejuvenate the economy and help 4.7 million jobless back to work.

Three main options emerged as parties weighed their options.

An unwieldy left-right "grand coalition" grouping Social Democrats and Christian Democrats -- a choice Merkel had labeled as a recipe for gridlock.

A center-left alliance bringing together the Social Democrats, Greens and the Free Democrats, known as the "traffic-light coalition" for the party colors red, yellow and green.

A left-center-right alliance linking up the Christian Democrats, the Free Democrats and the Greens. Wags have dubbed this the "Jamaica coalition" as its party colors would match the Caribbean country's flag.

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