With just six days left in Germany’s general election campaign, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder appears to have risen from the political dead. In early August, with the economy sagging and unemployment rising, his conservative rival Edmund Stoiber’s Christian Democrats were as many as nine percentage points ahead of Schröder’s Social Democrats, but this weekend several polls showed the two main parties running neck-and-neck.
What’s behind Schröder’s comeback? He handily outperformed Stoiber in a series of televised debates and won favor for postponing tax cuts to pay for flood relief after the summer’s devastation, but most commentators agree that his stance against German military action in Iraq—regardless of U.N. approval—is the key to his recent surge. The Financial Times was disappointed that the chancellor would use Iraq to “score points” with the electorate, since refusing to even discuss German participation “risks substantial long-term damage to Germany’s international influence.” It continued, “Mr Schröder’s line hands Iraq a propaganda weapon, puts fresh strains on Germany’s relations with France and Britain, and ensures Berlin will have zero leverage over decisions in Washington.” The editorial concluded, “[Schröder] must surely want to be remembered for more than an ability to win elections.”
Britain’s Daily Telegraph presented Schröder’s position on Iraq as a “cynical gamble.” After all, by facilitating his country’s participation in military actions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, he was largely responsible for projecting German power “beyond the confines of Nato.” Now Germany risks isolation within the Western alliance, and the foreign policy gap between the German and U.S. governments is wider than ever. The Telegraph noted that the German government “is apparently trying to convince Washington that it remains committed to the war on terror by suggesting that it assume command, with the Dutch, of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan early next year. But that will be a sideshow once Iraq is engaged.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung suggested that small parties will decide the Sept. 22 election. The next government’s makeup could be determined by the fate of the eastern-Germany-based Party of Democratic Socialism: If it fails to meet the 5 percent vote threshold for obtaining seats in parliament, chances are the current coalition of Schröder’s Social Democrats and the Greens will control enough seats to rule again; if the PDS wins three or more seats, all bets are off. According to the International Herald Tribune, a research group forecast that “[i]f the PDS won enough votes to be attributed seats, then in arithmetical terms, based on the current polling … the only possibilities for forming a Parliament would be a three-party coalition or a Grand Coalition between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats.”
Several British papers reported that, sensing impending defeat, Stoiber is making what the Times described as “an abrupt change of tack” in the last week of the campaign, attacking the current government’s immigration policies. Last Friday, Stoiber presented the Eastern European candidates for European Union membership as a menace to Germany, declaring, “Four hundred million are threatening to come here; that is why we have to defend ourselves.” The Independent reported that until this weekend, “the German election campaign had been remarkably free of the racist innuendo and open anti-immigrant rhetoric that so marked this year’s elections in France and the Netherlands. Far-right political parties are banned, and the centre-right alliance … has steered clear of the subject. Now, though, with his long-standing poll lead evaporating, the words ‘immigration’ and ‘foreigners’ have started to enter Mr Stoiber’s campaign vocabulary.” In a campaign appearance this weekend, Chancellor Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Green Party denounced Stoiber’s tactic and asked German voters to reject xenophobia.
The Daily Telegraph rued Stoiber’s charisma deficit when it complained, “The pity is that Mr Stoiber, whose economic record is good and who has not closed the door over Iraq, has proved such a poor campaigner.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung agreed that Schröder “benefited from continued coolness to Stoiber, a colorless speaker who has failed to connect with voters outside his native Bavaria.” The International Herald Tribune wondered if Stoiber was the victim of his own tactics: “In an enormous effort to be consensual and nonthreatening, Stoiber, rather than playing the scourge from Munich, may have watered his message down to such blandness and imprecision that he allowed Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to eat up the strong lead the CDU held in the polls through the summer.” The Times reported on the parties’ desperate pursuit of celebrity endorsements—Schröder has signed up former soccer star Jürgen Klinsmann, teenage heartthrob Sasha, and Nobel-Prize-winning author Günter Grass, while Stoiber’s most famous fans are Olympic toboggan champ Georg Hackl and Germany’s 1956 Miss World, Petra Schürmann.