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German Conservatives Gain One Seat

Conservative challenger Angela Merkel's party gained a seat Sunday in the last remaining district in parliamentary balloting, boosting her chances of becoming Germany's first female chancellor and giving the party extra momentum in coalition talks to form a new government.

With all 260 electoral districts reporting, Andreas Laemmel from Merkel's Christian Democrats (search) won the contest for a seat in Dresden with 37 percent of the vote. He defeated Marlies Volkmer from Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party, who had 32.1 percent.

While the outcome of the Dresden vote does not significantly alter the results of the Sept. 18 election, the strength of an extra seat in parliament is expected to give the conservatives a psychological advantage heading into coalition talks, which have been stalled because both Merkel and Schroeder claim a mandate to be chancellor.

Roland Koch, the conservative governor of Hesse state, said the vote confirmed the Christian Democrats and their Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union (search), as the strongest bloc in parliament, and it should choose the next chancellor.

"I see it as a step toward stability that we need to explain to the Social Democrats to stick to the rules," Koch said before final results were announced. "I see it as a signal for Angela Merkel."

The result Sunday increased the narrow edge held in parliament by the CDU and CSU from three seats to four, 226-222 over the Social Democrats (search) in the 614-seat lower house.

The pro-business Free Democrats (search) have 61, the Left Party (search), made up of former East Germany communists and renegade Social Democrats, 54, and the environmental Greens 51.

More than 72.1 percent of those eligible in this east German district had cast ballots, officials said just after polls closed.

The high turnout reflected how seriously the 219,000 registered voters here are taking balloting, which was delayed due to the death of a candidate during the election campaign.

The Sept. 18 vote centered on different visions of Germany's role in the world and how to fix its sputtering economy. Schroeder touted the country's role as a European leader willing to stand up to America, while Merkel pledged to reform the economy and strengthen relations with Washington.

Both Merkel and Schroeder claim the chancellorship, making exploratory talks over whether there is enough common ground between the two to form a so-called "grand coalition" difficult. The two were forced into the arrangement because neither won a majority.

Such a slow pace is frustrating other parties, such as the Free Democrats, who also could try to build a government with the conservatives if a grand coalition fails to coalesce.

"What can't be agreed upon in two weeks will not be any better in four weeks," Wolfgang Gerhardt, the parliamentary leader for the Free Democrats, said before Sunday's vote.

He criticized current plans to end negotiations as early as Oct. 31 as being too late and not indicative of a government capable of bringing about badly needed reforms to create jobs and kick-start Europe's largest economy.

Free Democrats head Guido Westerwelle (search) celebrated the result, saying it should persuade Schroeder to drop his demand to be Germany's leader.

"It means that Mr. Schroeder must finally understand that his time is up," Westerwelle said.