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Schroeder’s Coalition Narrowly Wins German Election

In Germany’s tightest election since World War II, the ruling “Red-Green” coalition took 306 of 601 seats in parliament, just ahead of the 295 won by a potential conservative-led bloc. The remaining seats went to smaller parties.

“A majority is a majority,” Schroeder said late Sunday, referring to his slight margin of victory. “If we have it, we will use it.”

The Social Democrat Party won 38.5 percent of the vote, a showing matched by the conservative Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union parties. Support for the Social Democrat party dropped from the 40.8 percent garnered in 1998 amid voter concern about Germany’s economic troubles and its 9.6 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the European Union.

The environmentalist Green party, led by the popular foreign minister Joschka Fischer, secured 8.6 percent of the vote — marking a considerably improvement from 6.7 percent in 1998.

Schroeder now holds the slimmest majority in Germany’s post-war parliament, which may hinder his ability to build parliamentary support for bolder initiatives.

In the campaign’s final days, foreign policy, including the question of whether Germany would back a U.S. bid to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, dominated the debates between Schroeder and his main challenger, Edmund Stoiber of the conservative Christian Democratic Union.

Schroeder’s rating with German voters improved, however, after he voiced opposition to Washington’s call for military intervention in Iraq. Since World War II, German voters have largely favored more pacifist policies. Stoiber promised voters he would not send German troops to war, but also criticized Schroeder’s stance and expressed support for the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq.

Schroeder, who had been gaining in the polls, took a blow when Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin reportedly compared President Bush’s strategy on Iraq to the diversionary tactics of Adolf Hitler.

Daeubler-Gmelin has denied having explicitly compared the two men, saying the Hitler comment came during a long and contentious discussion on Iraq policy.

Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, said Daeubler-Gmelin’s comments, coupled with Schroeder’s criticism of the U.S. Iraq policy, had “poisoned” U.S.-German relations.

“I would say it’s not been a happy time with Germany,” she said in an interview published Saturday in The Financial Times. “There have clearly been some things said way beyond the pale. The reported statements by the interior minister, even if half of what was reported was said, are simply unacceptable.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in Poland for a round of NATO meetings, echoed Rice’s assessment.

“I have no comment on the German elections outcome, but I would have to say that the way it was conducted was notably unhelpful,” Rumsfeld said. “And as the White House indicated, has had the effect of poisoning the relationship.”

At a press conference Monday, Schroeder defended his opposition to a war against Iraq.

“Between friends, there can be factual differences but they should not be personalized, particularly between close allies,” he said.

Schroeder also announced Daeubler-Gmelin would step down from her cabinet post. Last week, the German chancellor sent President Bush a letter apologizing for Daeubler-Gmelin’s alleged comments.

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