Schroeder jubilant after projections show opposition victory

Written off as a lame duck a few weeks ago, a jubilant Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted Sunday that he still can lead Germany after his conservative opponent appeared to fall short of her target in the country's parliamentary election.

In front of cheering supporters, the wily campaigner claimed credit for apparently trimming the double-digit lead opposition leader Angela Merkel once held in polls an outcome that, if confirmed, would deny her the chance to form the center-right government she wanted.

Schroeder was greeted by loud and lengthy applause, cheers and chants of "Gerhard! Gerhard!" as he appeared at his Social Democrats' headquarters. He flashed the thumbs-up signal and held his arms aloft in a gesture of triumph.

Projections and partial results indicated that his government of Social Democrats and Greens had been voted out of power, but that his party finished close behind Merkel's Christian Democrats. Until this month, surveys gave the main opposition party a lead of 12 points or more and indicated that Merkel was on course to form a government with the pro-business Free Democrats.

His campaign performance, and in particular his strong showing in a televised debate with Merkel, recalled his 2002 comeback to win an election by a narrow margin after speaking out against the looming war in Iraq.

Schroeder insisted that only he could lead a so-called "grand coalition" of the Social Democrats and Merkel's party. "How else would it work?" he asked during an appearance on public television with other party leaders. He defiantly told Merkel that she would not lead such a coalition. Schroeder launched a concerted attack in recent weeks on Merkel's choice of financial policy adviser, Paul Kirchhof, who had advocated a flat-rate income tax. He charged that a center-right government would attack the welfare state and workers' rights, reported AP.

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