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Schroeder's Ploy Hints at Party Impasse

Stymied in trimming the welfare state and low in the polls, German leader opts for early elections.

June 30, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — German politics are usually about as raucous as chamber music, but Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's stunning plan to call early elections has sent shudders through the nation's beer halls and salons.

Facing an angry public and a floundering economy, Schroeder's gamble on elections in September amounts to an admission that his Social Democratic Party is too divided to reform Europe's most generous welfare state. The chancellor's failure is illustrative of European liberal parties' inability to significantly reduce social programs amid the competitive pressures of globalization.

But in Germany, there's also the prospect of the nation choosing its first woman chancellor. The probable winner if the election were to be moved up a year would be the conservative Christian Democratic Union, led by Angela Merkel. A physicist who was raised in former communist East Germany, Merkel would improve Berlin's strained relations with Washington and alter Germany's ties to a European Union that is already in disarray.

"It's certainly becoming more interesting to watch the German political scenery," said Lothar Probst, a political scientist at the University of Bremen. "There will be battles between parties large and small."

National anticipation is focused on a confidence vote in Parliament that Schroeder has promised to call Friday. Polls suggest he will lose and ask German President Horst Kohler to dissolve Parliament so new elections can be held Sept. 18. The thinking goes that it is better for Schroeder to stand down now rather than preside over political gridlock as his party remains split and conservatives control the upper house.

Kohler, for his part, has kept quiet about his intentions. If the president refuses to disband the government, Schroeder, with a low approval rating of 28%, has said he will remain in office until his term expires in 2006.

Christian Democrats were gleeful when Schroeder made his announcement last month, but some are now wary that the chancellor could change his mind or come up with a sleight of hand that no one has anticipated. Constitutional lawyers are wondering if the chancellor is committing political suicide or finding a deft, dramatic gesture to again outflank his enemies.

Three years ago, the Social Democrats were down by nearly 20 percentage points just weeks before defeating the Christian Democrats, largely due to Schroeder's opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

But most politicians and analysts aren't predicting another revival. They say Schroeder has conceded that his government is stumbling on social and economic reforms and is unable to inspire Germans to rethink their relationship with the state.

A string of political defeats in recent months -- including the Social Democrats' embarrassing loss of North Rhine-Westphalia, a state the party had controlled for 39 years -- forced the chancellor to realign his ambitions. The Christian Democrats portrayed the chancellor as an increasingly ineffective leader and Merkel, long chided by the media for lacking flair, began appearing in airbrushed campaign photos and stylish clothes.

In January, the unemployment rate reached a post-World War II high of 12%. The economy, the largest in Europe, is expected to grow less than 1% this year. A scandal tied to visas and illegal immigration brought the taint of corruption to the government. And Schroeder's attempt to spur reform, known as Agenda 2010, earned him boos from trade unions, merciless cartoon caricatures and a slap in the face from one constituent.

In many ways, the chancellor's misfortunes illuminate Germans' unease about the future. Schroeder's first term began in 1998, following the Christian Democrats' Helmut Kohl, who had presided over the fall of communism and the reunification of the country. If Kohl was often viewed as a statesman, Schroeder, a lawyer from Hanover, is considered by many observers to be a gifted if opportunistic politician. But reunification brought huge financial, social and cultural problems yet to be solved.

The cost of a united country and growing economic competitiveness from abroad forced Schroeder to do what Kohl and other chancellors had avoided: redefine the welfare state.

Corporations complained Schroeder didn't go far enough, but working Germans, once accustomed to paid spa vacations and the highest wages and benefits in the world, bristled at the notion of paying $13 for a doctor's visit and reduced unemployment and pension benefits.

Many analysts say Schroeder has been more adept at foreign affairs than domestic challenges.

"The Schroeder government encountered the Kosovo war, Sept. 11 and the Iraq war," Probst said. "He was faced with a new agenda and new politics. In the end, he was better than one might have expected at handling these crises, but he wasn't coherent in explaining his reforms to the social welfare system. What history will tell us about Schroeder was that he missed an opportunity to prepare Germany for globalization."

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