Magazine article The American Prospect

One Cheer for Schroder: How Isolated Is the New Germany? (beyond the Beltway)

Magazine article The American Prospect

One Cheer for Schroder: How Isolated Is the New Germany? (beyond the Beltway)

Article excerpt

FOR ANYONE CRITICAL OF THE Bush administration's foreign policy, there seemed much to cheer about in German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's re-election last month. Schroder, after all, had made opposition to U.S. war plans in Iraq the centerpiece of his party's campaign. To a liberal or a progressive, there also appeared to be grounds for optimism in the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) and the Green Party's victory over their conservative rivals, particularly in the wake of social democratic defeats in Denmark, France and Holland. But appearances can deceive.

Schroder won his victory by using foreign policy to distract German voters from their concerns about 10 percent unemployment and almost a decade of economic stagnation. Schroder didn't come to or depart from the election with a credible program for reviving the German economy. And while questions of war and peace are significant, Schroder's criticism of American policy was made opportunistically--not with an eye toward actually affecting American foreign policy. All in all, the bizarre election probably leaves Schroder, Germany and Europe in worse shape than they were before.

In July, Schroder and the Social Democrats looked like they were headed for defeat at the hands of the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU) and their potential coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP). When Schroder ran in 1998, he promised to reduce unemployment from 4.1 million to at least 3.5 million, but this year it was again at 4 million. The CDU/CSU program was not that different from the SPD's--Germany's Christian Democrats are like moderate U.S. Democrats in their economic outlook--but the party's candidate for chancellor, Edmund Stoiber, could boast of his success as the governor of prosperous Bavaria. One poll showed the CDU/CSU and the FDP with 49 percent compared with 41 percent for the SDP and its embattled coalition partner, the Greens. But a series of historical accidents, and the Bush administration's turn toward war with Iraq, turned these numbers around.

In the former East Germany, where unemployment stands at 20 percent, former Communists from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS)have held the balance of power. In the September election, the PDS had expected to increase its vote to 7 percent or 8 percent. But in July, a petty scandal forced the PDS' leader, Gregor Gysi, to abandon national politics. Without the moderate and articulate Gysi as its standard-bearer, the PDS was reduced to a party of apparatchiks. The east's voters were suddenly up for grabs.

In early August, floods ravaged eastern Germany. Many Germans attributed these to extreme weather caused by global warming, which boosted the pro-environmental Greens' cause. At the same time, Schroder, sporting waders, responded energetically to the floods while Stoiber arrived belatedly in Dresden clad in loafers. It was a minor gaffe but it dramatized Stoiber's lack of an environmental program. The PDS was equally slow to respond.

Then came Iraq. Schroder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the leader of the Greens, had announced in early August that they opposed German participation in an American-led war against Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney's belligerent speeches in Nashville, Tenn., and San Antonio, Texas, at the month's end lent credibility to their arguments that the United States was bent on war. By early September, the SPD and the Greens were rising in the polls, the CDU/CSU was falling and the pacifist PDS, deprived of its last clear issue, was dropping below 5 percent in opinion polls. (If a party fails to win 5 percent nationally, it doesn't get to share seats in Germany's proportional parliamentary system.)

In desperation, the CDU/CSU and the FDP played their race and immigration cards. Stoiber, trying to exploit post-September 11 fears, promised to expel 4,000 Muslims from Germany--presumably without trial--and denounced Schroder for favoring immigration. …

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