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Early Election in Germany Could Leader to Warmer Ties With US

  • Patrick Goodenough International Editor
  • 2005 25 May
Early Election in Germany Could Leader to Warmer Ties With US
(CNSNews.com) - Germany Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's surprise decision to call an early election may bring to a premature end a government that has clashed with Washington over the Iraq war and a campaign to lift a European Union arms embargo on China.

Schroeder took the step after his center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) badly lost a regional election Sunday in a state it had ruled for decades.

He has called for a vote of confidence in his government on July 1, a required constitutional mechanism that will likely result in an election in mid-September, a year earlier than scheduled.

Emerging as the strongest challenger in the election is Angela Merkel of the conservative opposition Christian Democrat Union (CDU), who has distanced herself from Schroeder's anti-war position.

A "Politbarometer" poll released Tuesday gave a CDU-led alliance 50 points to the SPD's 29.

Schroeder has governed Germany in coalition with the leftist Greens since 1998, since when unemployment has been on the rise, prompting voters to punish the SPD in a series of state polls.

He narrowly won re-election in late 2002 after reading anti-war public opinion and coming out strongly against the U.S.-led campaign to topple Saddam Hussein -- a stance that led to a cooling in Washington-Berlin relations.

By contrast, Merkel supported the U.S., and visited Washington just weeks before the March 2003 war began, meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

In a speech in Washington, she said Germany's refusal to support military action against Saddam Hussein was encouraging a dictator and making war more, rather than less likely.

Merkel has not, however, voiced support for sending German troops to help post-war reconstruction efforts.

This year, she spoke out against a drive, spearheaded by Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, to lift a 16-year E.U. ban on weapons sales to China.

The initiative was strongly opposed by the U.S., which is concerned that lifting the embargo could upset the arms balance in North-East Asia, where it is legally committed to helping Taiwan to defend itself against unprovoked aggression.

Merkel said in April that suspending the ban "would endanger trans-Atlantic defense cooperation."

The Schroeder-Chirac plan to lift the embargo by the middle of this year was set back after China passed a law last February permitting the use of force to prevent Taiwan from formally declaring independence. The move stoked opposition within the E.U., although France says it hasn't given up on the drive.

In an interview this week with Die Zeit newspaper, Schroeder confirmed he would raise the Iraq war as an issue in the campaign.

Doing so could have a new chilling effect on ties with the U.S., however.

President Bush and Schroeder met last February in the German city of Mainz, where the chancellor said he wanted to emphasize positive aspects of the relationship, while also acknowledging "different opinions" about Iraq.

The White House announced Friday that Schroeder would hold another meeting with Bush, this time in Washington, on June 27.

"Building on their February 2005 meeting in Mainz, Germany, the two leaders intend to continue their discussion about how the United States and Europe can work together on a broad agenda of global issues," it said in a statement.

Merkel, 50, is a physicist and pastor's daughter who grew up in communist East Germany. Should her party form the next government, she would be Germany's first woman leader.

She was a protege of former chancellor Helmut Kohl, who brought her into his cabinet in 1991. Merkel became CDU chairman in 2000, but in the 2002 election stood aside as chancellor candidate in favor of party rival Edmund Stoiber, who narrowly lost to Schroeder.

Although her views on foreign policy are closer to Washington's than Schroeder's, one exception is her stance on Turkey's bid to join the E.U.

Like Schroeder (and Chirac), the U.S. supports Turkey's candidacy, but Merkel and the CDU are opposed to it. Arguing that Turkey is not ready for full accession, the party instead proposes a special partnership between the 25-member union and the Muslim country.

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