Schröder squeaks by again?

After a string of electoral defeats in important states, and specifically one in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced early general elections for this September, a year ahead of schedule. It wasn’t a clever ploy, but sheer necessity, for the Red-Green coalition couldn’t have withstood another year of defeats and internal bickering and already was in the process of falling apart. So the prospect of early elections was the only thing that could pull the coalition back together again, at least for a few months. The alternative would have been to see not just the coalition, but the Social Democratic party itself disintegrating. Thousands of party stalwarts have lost their seats in state parliaments and municipal councils, and a huge exodus of members is threatening to bleed the party dry. The membership also is anything but happy about Schröder and his policies (with a few exceptions) – as long as things went well for him they followed him, for he is their only ticket to hold on to power, but in time of crisis the divide between him and them, and between the different factions within the party is becoming too obvious to paper over. There also is no love lost between the Social Democrats and the Greens, who are, apart from the environmental policies, quite pro-market.

While the announcement of early elections was nothing but damage-control, unfortunately it also seems to have caught the opposition parties on the wrong foot:

If some Bavarians still wondered why the rest of Germany doesn’t much like them, smooth-talking Eddie Stoiber probably cleared up any remaining confusion last week.

In spectacularly offensive fashion, Stoiber first attacked the allegedly dangerous influence of eastern German voters on the election outcome. The failed conservative candidate for chancellor in 2002 said at a campaign rally he couldn’t abide the possibility that scruffy, “frustrated” easterners would end up deciding the election — as they did to his detriment last time around.

Stoiber then promptly followed up that gaffe by lamenting at another gathering that other Germans lacked the intelligence of his fellow Bavarians. Apparently, he was referring to the kind of intelligence that’s kept his party in power in the southern conservative stronghold for the past 60 years. But the monotony of the democratic process in Bavaria is a topic for another day.

Stoiber’s comments, understandably, unleashed a nationwide storm of outrage. Leaders across the political spectrum were united in their rejection of his assertion that easterners, or Ossis, as they’re disparagingly known in Germany, were unable to make an informed decision once inside the voting booth on September 18.

A few people might buy that line, but clear damage had been done to the conservatives’ clumsy campaign. Struggling with her own gaffes, Angela Merkel’s presence on the campaign trail has been less than steady of late. And now Stoiber’s comments have been dropped into the middle of an already contentious debate about the rift between eastern and western Germany with all the subtlety of a hydrogen bomb.

Earlier this month, easterners were insulted by remarks from Brandenburg’s conservative interior minister, Jörg Schönbohm. He posited the bizarre theory that somehow the legacy of East Germany’s brutal totalitarian regime was responsible for a clearly mentally disturbed woman who repeatedly committed infanticide.

Merkel, aware that offending a large section of the electorate isn’t the best campaign strategy, has gone into full damage-control mode. But her credibility with many easterners may already be stretched beyond repair. Despite her years growing up in the east, many there feel she betrayed her Ossi roots to have a successful Wessi career with the Christian Democrats (CDU).

Angela Merkel (generally) has the right ideas, but her position within her party isn’t as strong as it should be. She basically is her party’s parliamentary whip in the federal parliament, just as Tony Blair used to be Labour whip in the House of Commons adderalloral before he became Prime Minister. While that was enough in Great Britain’s fairly monolithic system (or at least as it was until Blair and his ideas of devolution), it isn’t so under the conditions of German federalism. So far nobody has managed to become Chancellor who also wasn’t governor of a reasonably large state, or at least a hugely popular minister in the preceding government. Merkel is no governor and has no local power base at all, not least because she is so estranged from the East German voters, and her tenure as a environmental minister under Helmut Kohl is long over.

Given all these factors she lacks the clout to call her party’s powerful state politicians to heel, and as is evident from the quote above, they aren’t holding back to improve her chances. What must be especially galling to her (and certainly galling for me) is that Edmund Stoiber, a pathetic candidate who managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in 2002, is blatantly sabotaging her campaign from Munich; she had deferred to him back then in the interest of the Party, but he isn’t returning the favor.

As if that wasn’t enough, Schröder is getting lucky again: (via Daily Pundit)

BERLIN, Aug. 13 (Xinhuanet) — German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Saturday spoke out against the war threat against Iran over its nuclear program.

Formally kicking off his reelection bid in his hometown of Hanover on Saturday, Schroeder said to the applause and cheers of 10,000 supporters, “Take the military option off the table – we have already seen it doesn’t work.”

His remarks came after US President George W. Bush told Israel TV in an interview that using force against Iran is an option, if the country fails to suspend its nuclear work to comply with the international demand.

Bush said if diplomacy failed to resolve the dispute with Iran, all options would be on the table.

Schroeder said calls for Iran to curtail its nuclear program would be far more credible if the countries which already had nuclear arms had done more to disarm in the past years, implicitly referring to the United States.

Schroeder’s anti-war stance reminded people of his staunch opposition to the US invasion into Iraq in 2002, when his anti-war effort made him narrowly win reelection as German chancellor.

This is the perfect issue to motivate his more leftwing supporters to vote Social Democrat rather than for the even more leftist alternatives. It won’t make other parties’ supporters vote Social Democrat, but since the outcome looks to be very narrow yet again, with a margin of a few thousand voters, it just might be the final deciding factor. Damn.

I’m hoping that the damage will be limited if the worst should happen. A renewed Red-Green coalition would fall apart quickly, and a coalition of Social Democrats with the newly formed hard-left party

And then came “The Left Party.” The former Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the SED party that ruled East Germany for almost 40 years, joined forces with the western-based Election Alternative for Social Justice (WASG). The result: a party that, according to the most recent public opinion polls, has become the third strongest party in Germany.
The country’s main parties, particularly the conservative CDU, are alarmed.

wouldn’t just fall apart, but achieve critical mass and blow up in the Left’s stupid faces. I strongly suspect that we will either have yet another general election in late 2006, or a ‘grand coalition’ of Social and Christian Democrats, either because no other majorities are available, or because all other configurations would fall apart quickly. Either way the damage should be limited, but things will be highly aggravating all the same. Good thing my blood pressure isn’t all that high. Just to be safe I’ll store anything throwable in the cellar, though.

3 thoughts on “Schröder squeaks by again?”

  1. It still looks almost certain that CDU/CSU will have more seats than Social Democrats (which is what the futures market contracts are about). CDU/CSU is still leading Social Democrats by at least 12% in all polls.

    The more important question is: will CDU+CSU+FDP have more seats than Social Democrats+Greens+New Left? That is increasingly unclear.

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