Merkel and Schroeder struggle for chancellor's office

Opposition leader Angela Merkel moved to shore up support in her own disappointed party ranks as top German politicians searched for a coalition that could lead the country out the pause.

Voters disenchanted by high unemployment ousted Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government of Social Democrats and Greens, but withheld a majority from Merkel's preferred center-right lineup of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, which planned limited cuts in welfare state benefits and worker protections.

The confused result has sparked a scramble to form a coalition, with both Schroeder and Merkel claiming the right to be chancellor and lead a government.

Merkel on Tuesday was asking the Christian Democrats to re-elect her as the party's leader in parliament. The vote comes after the party turned in a disappointing result under her leadership in the campaign against Schroeder, barely finishing first, 35.2 percent to 34.3 percent. She had earlier led by up to 20 points.

Seeking re-election was a preliminary test of strength, and she was expected to run unopposed. The Social Democrats also scheduled a vote on their parliamentary leader, Franz Muentefering, also unopposed.

Coalition possibilities included the so-called Jamaica coalition of right-wing Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, plus the environmentalist Greens, who line up left of center. Its name comes from the parties' colors, black, green and yellow, which match the Jamaican flag.

Bild, the country's biggest newspaper, put a photo montage of Merkel, Greens Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, and Free Democrats leader Guido Westerwelle, all in dreadlocks, on its front page.

Another leading possibility is a so-called "grand coalition" between Merkel's party and Schroeder's party; but both can't be chancellor.

Social Democratic Interior Minister Otto Schily indicated that was the more likely option in an interview published Tuesday' in Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.

A top labor leader, Juergen Peters, endorsed Schroeder's bid to remain chancellor after seven years and expressed support for an all-left government of Social Democrats, Greens, and the new Left Party, made up of renegade Social Democrats unhappy with Schroeder's pro-business reforms and former East German communists, the AP reports.

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