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.
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.
In lengthy television debates, Mr. Stoiber, 61 and gray, could not steer past the 58-year-old, brown-haired Mr. Schroeder-despite a solid economic record as governor of Bavaria to show against some of the worst economic numbers in Germany's recent history. Third-quarter reports released in the final days of the election showed unemployment at a three-year high and retail and factory sales at all-time lows. Although the country still boasts the world's third-largest economy, the high cost of government has ground down private initiative. A pension crisis looms.
At the same time, unemployment in Bavaria dropped to below 6 percent under Mr. Stoiber. Economic growth policies in the state attracted high-tech industries and boosted an above-average public education system. On the national stage, where Bavarians persistently fail to win office, Mr. Stoiber was derided for his thick southern accent and conservative social positions. "Laptops and lederhosen" is how his policies added up in the national press.
Mr. Stoiber won 62 percent of the vote in his home state but was portrayed losing traction on home turf as a Bavarian who won't drink beer. Photo-ops caught him grimacing at local beer tastings and opting for alcohol-free ale. A Roman Catholic, he also held the line on important social policy, allowing schools to keep their crosses and going to court to challenge federal recognition of same-sex unions.
"He was really the best chance we ever had," Alois Glueck, a senior official of Mr. Stoiber's party, told The New York Times after the election. His Christian Social Union party backed him in an alliance with its larger sister party, the Christian Democratic Union. "He did such a great job in Bavaria. He would have been able to unite all of Germany."
Mr. Schroeder, by contrast, rose to party leadership and national office in 1998 by exploiting his rowdy reputation. As an unknown and inebriated lawmaker from Lower Saxony he once shook the gate at the chancellor's office in Bonn late one night shouting, "I want to get in there!" Such stories were pedaled into legend during his first campaign, along with blunt admissions about his Marxist past, marital strife (he is on his fourth wife), and affection for Cuban cigars.
That gig plays well among communists in the former East Germany. Conservatives point out that Mr. Schroeder did better there than the communist candidates because the chancellor was so good at stealing their lines. He also played to liberals who dislike Mr. Bush and to those from the "'68 generation" who still have not met a war they can handle.
The question facing Mr. Schroeder now is what will he do with the anti-Americanism tempest he stirred? Just days after floating proposals to pull German soldiers stationed in Kuwait and to restrict U.S. military installations in Germany, he showed signs of penitence, turning to British Prime Minister Tony Blair as an intermediary to the Bush administration. He met the United States' top European ally for a two-hour dinner discussion in London.
That did not immediately soften White House ire. "Nobody should be under illusions or mistakes that now that the election is over that everything goes back to the way it was," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of Mr. Schroeder. "That's not the natural result of the manner in which that campaign was waged." At a NATO meeting in Poland, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied German defense minister Peter Struck's plea for a meeting.
Pundits believe Mr. Schroeder will pay a high price to continue isolationist posturing in wartime. "The Germans are desperately clinging to the myth that they are living on an island of the blessed, an absurd notion if you consider that the country has 10 open borders," said UPI German correspondent Uwe Siemon-Netto. "This is like believing that, 10 leaks notwithstanding, your skiff will safely make it across the pond without the help of others."
He will face problems at home, too. "Mr. Schroeder has to change his attitude quickly or he will run into great problems with the majority of the Germans," said Mr. Apel. "We know what the USA did for us after World War II and we know that our friendship with America is essential for our future."