Schröder Beats Bush in German Election

Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on the campaign trail in Frankfurt, Sept. 18, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Drained by a lackluster election campaign that culminated in one of the closest elections in its postwar history, Germany emerged worried about its future. For the first time in German history, an election had been won, albeit narrowly, on an anti-war ticket. U.S. President George Bush had been rebuffed. But the economic problems that almost certainly would have cost Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder the election had he not made opposition to war with Iraq a central plank in his campaign platform remain.

The day after the election, fear of economic and parliamentary paralysis caused German markets to plunge to their lowest level in five years. This is not a good omen for the years to come. Economists and investors share the concern that the conservative opposition, led by Edmund Stroiber, will try to block any new initiative the chancellor will propose to jump-start the stalled economy.

But one could also detect a hint of satisfaction in many German news reports. Some saw the Bush administration's harsh reaction to Schröder's criticism as a sign of American megalomania. When reports reached the White House that Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, Schröder's justice minister in the last government, had compared Bush’s political tactics to Adolf Hitler’s, the administration’s angry response only further stoked anti-American sentiments in Germany. It also cost Daeubler-Gmelin her job, as Schröder scrambled to repair what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called “the poisoned relationship” between Germany and the United States. But Schröder seemingly knew how to tap into this anti-war sentiment by building on Germany’s pacifist mood.

Schröder may be an opportunist, but he is first “a populist, who used the fears and emotions of his voters,” commented Mathias Müller in the Sept. 23 edition of Hamburg's liberal weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “In the end, the chancellor's re-election was a very personal one. The coalition won because Schröder came across as the good uncle. During the devastating floods, the chancellor acted as a man of deeds, rather than words, which especially in Eastern Germany was seen as an asset…. The second boon sent was Washington's bellicose grumble, which allowed Schröder to present himself as the peace-loving knight. Without mercy, Schröder exploited his voters’ fears of a new war against Iraq.”

This was an election of firsts in Germany. Not only was it the first peacetime election won over foreign policy issues, it was also an election in which East German voters had cast the decisive votes. Most East Germans favored a continuation of the Red-Green coalition under Schröder and his Green Party Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. They were the most affected by the devastating floods and felt assured by the chancellor’s compassionate response. Neither candidate had missed the oppportunity to show off his shiny new rubber boots to voters in the areas most affected by the high waters—but it was Schröder who got there first. He shook his fist, spoke of a national catastrophe, and promised immediate, unconditional financial assistance and humanitarian aid.

Whereas after unification, the conservative Christian-Democrats were favored by East Germans, who helped re-elect Helmut Kohl as chancellor in 1990 on the promise of creating "a blooming Eastern Germany," now Schröder had given East German voters his word to keep their blooming lands dry. But there was more to it: Many East Germans are still very critical of the United States to the point of being openly anti-American. When Schröder promised Germany's "unlimited solidarity" with the United States immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, many East Germans were reminded of the empty slogans they grew up with, when their leaders pledged "anti-imperialist solidarity" with the Soviet Union. "The entire East breathed a breath of relief when Schröder changed his attitude and brusquely distanced himself from the United States," Frankfurt's conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung explained in its Sept. 23 editorial. "[But] the fact that the chancellor owes the East German voters will prove to be a heavy burden for him—and grounds for disappointments in the future."

East German voters turned out in droves for the Social Democrats. But they also strengthened the Greens, who cashed in on the floods by turning global warming and environmental policies into hot election-campaign topics. In the end, the Greens’ strong showing help pull the election out of the fire for Schröder, making them Germany's third-largest party. Commentators on the left and the right agreed that the charismatic foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, came out as the true winner of the election. "Fischer's stance during the entire election campaign was honest," claimed Wolfram Weimer in the Sept. 23 edition of Berlin's centrist Berliner Morgenpost under the headline "Two Winners, Two Losers, and One Neutralized Chancellor." "Schröder's 'election campaign pacifism' was hypocritical, [whereas] Fischer was the honest pop star who gathered his fans for a concert."

In other words, Schröder had won, but he wasn't the victor. Only the Greens were really victorious. The party, once dismissed as a motley assortment of radical ecologists, women, and bearded, baby-boomer pacifists, had appealed to younger voters, edging out the neo-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and East Germany’s former communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).

“Nobody in the new government can claim that what the voters wanted is ‘more of the same,’ ” wrote Oliver Stock in Düsseldorf's financial Handelsblatt (Sept. 23). “The government must clean up the mess it has produced in the past weeks.”

Commentators across the political spectrum agreed that Germany must now begin a thorough soul-searching on how to proceed. How will Germany address the U.S.-German breach without losing face? More importantly in the long run, how will the German powerhouse—the third-largest economy in the world and the largest in Europe—escape from recession, which is threatening economic stability throughout Europe?

Schröder faces the daunting task of reforming a country that is stubbornly opposed to any fundamental changes. He had won his first term on the promise to overcome Helmut Kohl's “don't rock the boat” attitude. He managed to do just that during the first two years of his term. But he must convince Germans to discard long-held beliefs about the proper nature of the German economy. And he must make painful decisions on immigration policy and the question of tax-cuts.

The country stands at the beginning of one of its worst economic recessions since the end of World War II, prompting the editors The Economist, a conservative London newsmagazine, to call Germany “the sick man of Europe.” 

The German economy is showing a meager growth rate of 0.6 percent, the worst in the European Union, more than 4 million Germans are unemployed, and the country’s education system is lagging behind. “In the near future, many Germans will receive less rather than more [from the government],” wrote Markus Zyda in his commentary for the Sept. 23 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “We have no other choice. Unfortunately, in this election, the Germans failed to make any decision at all.”

Schröder's weak coalition will need to deliver what few Germans want but all agree the country needs. But at least German commentators seem fully aware of the magnitude of the challenges the government will face. “The time to paint everything in rosy colors, once and for all, is over,” was Oliver Schumacher’s assessment in a Sept. 23 article for Munich's centrist Süddeutsche Zeitung. “The old-new government awaits a long and cold winter. Economists predict an additional 300,000 unemployed by the end of the year. The coalition doesn't have a majority in the Bundesrat. The opposition can veto any economic reforms the government wants to push through….[But] the government has to do everything in its power to help the German economy grow. Otherwise, the country will take a steep dive.”

“The coming term will prove to be the most volatile in history,” worried Torsten Kraul, writing for Berlin's conservative Die Welt (Sept. 23). “A narrow majority must push through immense reforms.”

Berlin's left-wing Tageszeitung was even more pessimistic: “This government doesn't stand a chance,” Daniel Haufler concluded on Sept. 24. “It will be awful: reforming the health system, reforming the pension system, tackling the skyrocketing deficit. The tax reform already proved to be impossible to sell to the Germans. One really has to pity Schröder!”

The chancellor has at least stirred the country from its “wait-and-see” attitude in foreign affairs to become a more independent, assertive partner in the international political arena. This last element may become more important in coming months. On Jan. 1, 2003, Germany will take over one of the rotating non-permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council and will serve as the Council's president. One of Schröder’s first acts after the election was to offer to take over command of the peacekeeping effort in Afghanistan. Whether this pans out or not, Germany will likely step up its humanitarian presence in Afghanistan and Kosovo (it now deploys nearly 100,000 troops abroad, most in peacekeeping missions). This might help smooth over relations with the United States, as Schröder possibly hopes it will, but continued German opposition to a strike against Iraq could pose a great stumbling block to the U.S.-led offensive. And early signs indicate that the United States will not be easily bought off with promises of greater assistance in Afghanistan. Secretary Rumsfeld walked out of a NATO meeting in Warsaw on Sept. 24, minutes before his German counterpart was due to speak. Though Rumsfeld denied it was an intentional snub, when asked about the incident at a news conference the next day, he told reporters, “We have a saying in America: ‘When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Rumsfeld then paused, before adding, “Erm, I’m not sure I should have said that. Let’s pretend I never said that.”

Once he patches over the damage done to Germany relationship with the United States, Schröder can avail himself of his second chance to finish what he started four years ago. He now faces the enormous task of pushing for a larger international role, and possibly of becoming the continental counterbalance to British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s unflinching support for the U.S. administration’s war plans. Even Blair admits that Schröder raised questions it made sense to ask.

“Schröder didn't question the American way but rather he criticized the way the Bush administration deals with foreign policy issues,” wrote Jochen Siemens in Frankfurt's liberal Frankfurter Rundschau (Sept. 24). “There is a legitimate reason for that….[But] in spite of the differences in opinion, it is important to return to an atmosphere of trust. That will be Schröder's immediate challenge. The same can be said for the relationship with France and the rest of Europe. Schröder's single-handed approach has hurt the unified European voice on Iraq. And only a unified Europe can be a counterbalance to Washington…. Germany must safeguard its interests—but alienating its partners is not the way to do it.”