LONDON - Aided by his blunt opposition to U.S. threats to attack Iraq, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder narrowly won re-election yesterday in the country's closest election in more than 50 years.
The margin separating him and conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber was so thin that both candidates claimed victory within minutes of each other, though Stoiber indicated after 1 a.m. German time today that he had likely lost the election.
Schroeder's late election bid to tap into anti-American sentiment by declaring that Germany would not take part in an attack on Iraq paid off. He and his Social Democrats - along with coalition partner the Greens - captured just enough seats in the German parliament to maintain the chancellorship.
Schroeder's prospects appeared all but doomed only a month ago, when Stoiber's Christian Democrats were at least 5 points ahead in most polls.
But Schroeder moved to within striking distance with his response to the flooding that devastated parts of Germany last month. And he pushed just ahead of Stoiber in the polls after taking his stand on Iraq.
Last night, both men stood before cheering crowds.
"This is a suspenseful evening, a very suspenseful evening," Schroeder, 58, told supporters in Berlin.
Paraphrasing West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's statement in 1949, when he had only a one-seat margin, he added: "A majority is a majority. If we have it, we will use it. We want to continue - and it looks like we will be able to."
Stoiber, speaking to supporters in Munich, carried much the same message.
"One thing is already clear: We have won the election," said Stoiber, 60, Bavaria's governor for the past nine years, whose late bid to win votes included a proposal to deport any non-German nationals suspected of taking part in terrorism, in his estimation about 4,000 people.
Later in the evening, he seemed to be backing away from his victory statement but stopping short of conceding the election.
His future, he said, appeared to be that of party chairman and prime minister of Bavaria. He said that Schroeder's "red-green" government won't last long and that he would be prepared to run Germany "within a year."
Promises not kept
The vote numbers were certain to show a decrease in support for Schroeder, who polls had shown was far more popular than Stoiber but who was damaged by a failed promise to cut unemployment to 3.5 million people. As the vote took place, more than 4 million Germans were out of a job.
The exit polling showed him with about 3 percent fewer votes than he received in 1998, when he ended Helmut Kohl's 16 years in office.
But he successfully moved the debate away from the economy by dismissing President Bush's threats of war against Iraq as "an adventure," and he angered the White House further by declaring that not even a United Nations resolution authorizing force would bring Germany on board.
Relations with Washington hit a low point last week when the government's justice minister indirectly compared Bush to Adolf Hitler, arguing the president was threatening war so that voters would not focus on the struggling U.S. economy.
'Nothing to retract'
The tone Schroeder has set with Washington could make for difficult times ahead, but his remarks provided a needed boost to his campaign. Polls show Germans overwhelmingly oppose an attack on Iraq. They also show that a strong majority of Germans believe Schroeder was taking a stand against the attack only because an election was under way, though Schroeder gave no indication yesterday that he will back down.
"I have formulated a German position, and I have nothing to retract on that count," Schroeder said as votes were being counted.
Stoiber, after initially staying silent on the issue, said he opposed an attack but left open the possibility Germany would take part with proper United Nations approval. He strongly criticized Schroeder's stance on Iraq and said he was cynically beating up on the United States, Germany's staunchest ally, for the sake of votes.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, official results showed the Social Democrats and Greens combined won 47.1 percent to continue their coalition for another four years. The conservative challengers had 45.9 percent in a probable alliance with the liberal Free Democrats, whose share was 7.4 percent.
Some 80 percent of Germany's 61 million voters turned out - casting two votes, one for a local candidate and one for a party.
The party vote is critical because it determines the percentage of seats each party wins in the Bundestag, or parliament.
The Social Democrats and environmentalist Greens won 305 seats in the new parliament of 601 seats, compared with 294 for the conservative challengers led by Stoiber, according to projections by ARD public television. Smaller parties won the remaining seats.
The election focused as much on personalities as on issues.
In the final days of the campaign, Stoiber, often criticized as bland, was shown in campaign commercials kissing a fish and smiling broadly as a woman snipped off his necktie.
Schroeder, who has maintained his personal popularity with voters despite Germany's economic condition, scored with voters during the second of two televised debates.
In the end, though, the personality that saved Schroeder's job belonged to Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens.
Widely regarded as the most popular politician in Germany, he led his party to its best-ever showing, with about 8.5 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest party in Germany.
Fischer's popularity as foreign minister and the Iraq debate helped propel the Greens, party leader Rezzo Schlauch said.
"We are so happy. ... There was the issue of war and peace, and we have a highly competent foreign minister. It was a combination of the issues and the people in charge," Schlauch said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.