· By RAY FLEMING COMMITTING political suicide in public is a strange way to go about winning an election but that is more or less what Germany's Chancellor Schroder was up to yesterday. He called for a vote of confidence in his government in the Bundestag but then pleaded with his own party members to abstain in order to ensure that the vote would be lost. And it was: Against 296, For 151, Abstained 148. Having won, or lost, (whichever), he will now ask the German President to dissolve the Bundestag so that new elections can be called for September, one year earlier than normal. There is a reason for this quaint procedure, included in the German constitution drawn up after World War Two as a means of ensuring stability by preventing the Bundestag from dissolving itself. Herr Schroder was completely open about his tactics: “My government has a diminished capacity to act after defeats in regional elections. Without a new mandate my political programme cannot be carried forward.” However many people doubt that Schroder's Social Democratic Party (SDP) can win the next election, whenever it is held. The widespread view is that the SDP is responsible for Germany's economic stagnation and high unemployment (11.3 per cent, 4.7 million people) and that he has personally mishandled such matters as relations with the United States. The current opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) are confident of victory after handsomely winning a key state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, includng the industrial Ruhr region, in May. The CDU is now led by Angela Merkel, a former East German politician, who favours the kind of economic reforms implemented in Britain over the past 15 years. She does not appear to have the kind of platform charisma of Gerhard Schroeder but nonetheless holds a comfortable 17 per cent lead in the polls. What will happen if the German President, Horst Kohler, refuses to dissolve the Budestag? He has 21 days in which to decide. If he says No, Mr Schroder could soldier on, a much reduced figure, or resign and ask the SDP to replace him as leader.

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