International Papers

Schröder the Survivor

Gerhard Schröder’s narrow victory in Sunday’s German elections—his Social Democrats tied the Christian Democratic bloc with 38.3 percent of the vote, but coalition partners the Greens had their best-ever results, scoring 8.8 percent, thus permitting a continuation of the Red-Green alliance—was most frequently characterized as a “razor-thin majority,” though in a lovely French idiom, Libération said, “Schröder won in a pocket handkerchief.”

The big winner was Green Party leader and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who was described by France’s Le Figaro as “Sunday’s hero” and profiled as “the Green who made Schröder win.” Die Welt joined the fan club, declaring, “[Fischer] presented the image of an old, honest pop star who got his fans together again for a classic concert.” Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung moaned, “Schröder has not really earned this chance,” since in the previous administration he “distanced himself so often from the Greens, he humiliated them, he gave the impression that this coalition was an embarrassment to him. … But in the end he has been saved” by them. (German translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Although the chancellor won praise for his remarkable turnaround triumph—a Guardian columnist joked, “If he knows the tune, Gerhard Schröder should be whistling the theme to The Great Escape this morning”—several commentators suggested the next administration will be a tough one for Schröder with the Greens wielding so much power. The Spanish daily ABC, in an editorial headlined “A Weak Chancellor for a Weak Germany,” said Schröder “will assume the leadership from a weak, mortgaged position.” Also in Spain, El País took a more nuanced view, declaring, “He won’t necessarily be a weak executive, since he controls four seats more than the absolute majority. But Schröder will have less room for maneuver. In the previous parliament he could change his dance partner and opt for a coalition with the liberals. Now the arithmetic ties his hands and feet to Fischer’s.”

For Britain’s Independent, the election represented “a positive turn of events for Germany and for Europe.” The editorial continued: “German voters rejected extremes, of right and left. They heeded the ghosts of the past, and exorcised them whenever they appeared. The Justice Minister lost her seat and her ministry after an ill-advised reference to Hitler. The whiff of anti-Semitism split the Free Democrat leadership, costing it a share of power and Edmund Stoiber the right to form the governing coalition. The majority for the Social Democrats and the Greens shows a country that sets store by social solidarity and the environment.” The Financial Times took the opposite view, declaring, “The Germany that emerges from yesterday’s election appears … fearful of the future; shutting its ears to the dilemmas of international conflict; and with an economy hobbled not only by the after-effects of unification but also by self-inflicted rigidities built up over 50 years. Faced with political leaders offering unimaginative and unconvincing solutions, the electorate has spread its favours almost evenly between the main parties.”

The administration’s first big challenge will be mending fences with the United States: On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the anti-American tone of the German election campaign had “poisoned” bilateral relations. A news analysis in the International Herald Tribune suggested that Schröder might soften his opposition to military involvement in Iraq once in power: “Opinion polls published just before the election showed that a clear majority of Germans believe Schroeder’s refusal of any military involvement in Iraq was literally not credible; they saw it as just another campaign promise. But considering the emotions involved, an attempt by the chancellor to undo the commitment without some overwhelming new development would seem sure to bring down the government.”