TCS Daily

Gerhard Reign's a Gonna Fall

By Joseph Tom Goeller - May 23, 2005 12:00 AM

BERLIN - After seven years, Germans seem to have had enough of socialist Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. This past Sunday the German opposition won a landslide election victory in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, an industrial region regarded as the cradle of the German labor movement.

The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) advanced almost eight points to around 45 percent, enough to wrest power from Schröder's Social Democrats (SPD) for the first time in 39 years in the state. The result might have a significant impact on transatlantic relations. Germany could soon become a reliable partner to the United States again.

This election loss in Germany's biggest state was the worst in a string of defeats that the chancellor admits has cast doubt on whether the country supports his economic reforms, including unpopular welfare cuts, designed to address the unemployment rate of more than 10 percent. Schröder immediately went on the offensive, and announced to a stunned press audience that he would seek general elections in the fall, one year earlier than scheduled. His sudden move caught the CDU and its junior partner the Liberals (FDP) by complete surprise. However the vast majority of the German media call this move a "political suicide".

Now, even if Schröder could win the general elections together with his coalition partner the Greens, he could not even pass a bill. Out of the 16 German states only five are controlled by the SDP. The Christian Democrats can block in the Bundesrat - the equivalent to the US Senate - any initiative of a Schröder government. One can now safely say the Schröder era is drawing to a close.

The same is true for the small but influential coalition partner, the Greens, who suffered significantly from the involvement of party leader Joschka Fischer in a recently surfaced visa scandal. The German foreign minister conceded in public testimony in April that he did not act to curb visa abuses that allowed thousands of eastern European criminals into Germany and the EU between 2000 and 2002 - even though his own diplomats kept warning him about the problem.

The Christian Democrats and the Liberals won because they were able to mobilize their voters, whereas a significant number of potential Social Democrats either abstained or voted for a left-wing splinter group. Schröder's reforms of the costly German welfare system are considered too inadequate to counter the country's severe economic crisis. To traditional Socialists, Schröder is a "traitor" to capitalism. The truth is, Schröder, who took over from conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1998 with the promise to bring down the high unemployment rate, was unable to address the real economic problems of his compatriots. Instead he distracted the German public and with aggressive anti-US demagoguery was able to win re-election in 2002. He bought himself time but did not solve the nation's problems.

"The reforms require the support of our citizens," Schröder said after the election. "The bitter result for my party in North Rhine-Westphalia has called into question the political basis for continuing these reforms." Here, one can see him already trying to distract from the real reasons for his party's defeat.

Reform of the German welfare system certainly is not questioned anymore by the majority of the Germans, but rather by the majority of Social-Democrats, who are looking backwards, trapped in old visions of the past century. A new government, run by the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, will have to go even further with the reforms than Schröder did. A deep and far reaching reform of German labor laws and social benefits is regarded by most economists as essential to stem the steady decline in Europe's largest economy.

But a new government in early fall of 2005 would not only change German domestic politics. More importantly it would change German foreign policy. One can expect from a conservative government in Berlin steps toward reconciling relations with Washington. Perhaps there will still be no German troops sent to Iraq, but in other areas, for example Iran, the relationship between Washington and Berlin will warm up again and the one between Paris and Berlin will cool down a bit -- all to the advantage of US foreign policy.

But before this can happen, some obstacles must be overcome:

The German Constitution normally allows federal elections to be held only every four years. Calling early elections is a complicated process that requires the approval of the German president and a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the chancellor. Schröder's coalition of Social Democrats and Greens still has a slim majority in the Bundestag. However, two other chancellors in German history successfully called votes of confidence with the express aim of holding new elections.

Opposition leader Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats, who could become Germany's first female chancellor, said: "Every day that Germany isn't ruled by this coalition would be good day for Germany." Initial opinion polls after the historic state election show that while Merkel is not held in high regard by the general public, the majority want a political change. They don't care who the next chancellor is as long as it isn't Schröder.


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