Hurricane Schroeder

Germany | Creating a storm of anti-Americanism, the newly reelected German chancellor must now ride out his rift with the Bush administration-and with his own party

Issue: "False witnesses?," Oct. 5, 2002

GERMAN VOTERS APPARENTLY PAID no mind to the old Clinton/Carville saw about elections being all about "the economy, stupid." With one of Europe's highest unemployment rates-currently stuck at 10 percent-the German electorate could have voted in a candidate who lowered Bavaria's unemployment rate to almost half the national average. Instead, they chose to stay the course, handing Gerhard Schroeder a second four-year mandate in national elections on Sept. 22. He narrowly defeated his demonstrably competent rival, Edmund Stoiber, to form a coalition government with the once-fringe Green Party.

But this was not an election that turned on competence. Mr. Schroeder capitalized on a natural disaster-devastating summer floods in eastern Germany-along with a manmade storm over U.S. plans to go to war with Iraq.

Combative stands on both issues propelled Mr. Schroeder to a come-from-behind win. He beat the conservative coalition with 47.1 percent of the vote to Mr. Stoiber's 45.9 percent-the narrowest victory ever in postwar Germany. Mr. Schroeder used the power of incumbency to close a 5-point deficit in opinion polls going into the last month before the election.

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When the Elbe River swelled to record levels during the final weeks of the campaign, the chancellor promised aggressive government aid to victims. He pledged $10 billion to recovery efforts and promised to amend bankruptcy laws to bolster affected businesses in the floodplain.

Those efforts drew support from undecided voters in the former East Germany, where much of the flooding took place and where the economy is already wrecked by holdover communist policies. For decrepit businesses already tottering on the edge of bankruptcy, the flood aid works more like a get-out-of-jail-free card.

But the chancellor drew the most attention for his outspoken opposition to the U.S. call for "regime change" in Iraq. While most European heads of state acknowledge that they will side with President Bush once the United Nations endorses military action, Mr. Schroeder says he will not support a war in Iraq even with UN backing.

Aides went further. Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, Mr. Schroeder's justice minister, told an election-week gathering that Mr. Bush's pursuit of war with Iraq could be compared to Adolf Hitler. "Bush wants to distract attention from his domestic problems. This is a popular method. Hitler also used it," she said-unaware that a German reporter was in the room. She complained that the United States has "a lousy legal system," and said "Bush would be sitting in prison today" if insider-trading laws were enforced.

The comments cost Ms. Daeubler-Gmelin her job-but not until after the election. Post-election Mr. Schroeder said his position on Iraq, however, was firm. "I have formulated a German position, and I have nothing to retract on that count," he said.

While the Schroeder strategy rankled the opposition, it also soured veteran members of his own party. "Schroeder learned by opinion polls that the Iraq question could give him the election victory if he took a radical anti-position to the Bush approach," Hans Apel, a fellow Social Democrat, told WORLD. The party in its present state, he said, "is now a loose political association with one central aim: to win elections."

Mr. Apel served as finance minister and then defense minister under Helmut Schmidt, the previous Social Democratic chancellor. He held the defense post from 1978 until 1982, when Social Democrats lost the chancellorship over Mr. Schmidt's support of U.S. foreign policy. At that time controversy raged over President Ronald Reagan's plans to base intermediate-range missiles aimed at the Soviet Union in Germany. "It was the end of our government because we supported the United States over public opinion in Germany," Mr. Apel said.

Holding to an unpopular position had both personal and political cost. At a national church assembly in 1982, anti-war and anti-U.S. demonstrators (called the "'68 generation" in Germany) hurled pig's blood at then defense minister Apel. A lifelong Lutheran, Mr. Apel since has left the mainline state Lutheran church-largely because of its embrace of liberal political positions and growing irrelevance (only 2 percent to 3 percent of Germans are regular churchgoers). He joined the conservative Free Lutherans.

Now he is again faced with a choice of leaving or cleaving, this time with his political party. Mr. Apel said he voted for the Social Democratic Party "as a disciplined party member" but does not support Mr. Schroeder. Under him, he told WORLD, "the SPD [Social Democrat Party] has lost most of its traditional roots: solidarity, strong links with the working class, fight for economic growth."

Mr. Apel, now 70 and teaching economics at Rostock University, said urgent reforms to Germany's social and economic structure were not debated in the campaign. "Therefore the better showmaster on television won," he said. The chancellor's campaign strategy created a "valueless Schroeder" that now leaves rank-and-file Social Democrats with little mandate to govern apart from Mr. Schroeder's charisma.


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