October 5th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Hurdles to the sell-off of Telstra

Queensland sugar protests grow

Turnbull contradicts Costello's new agenda

GERMANY: Floods, Iraq help Schroeder scrape back

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Goodbye to all that? Surely!

ECONOMICS: Globalisation: where is it going?

MEDIA: September 11: media's 'greed for tears' writ large

LETTERS: Vietnam commitment right (letter)

LETTERS: On our own terms (letter)

LETTERS: Democrats' suicide (letter)

LETTERS: Singapore (letter)

HISTORY: When we dead awaken

OBITUARY: Heroic Vietnamese cardinal Van Thuan dies in Rome

BOOKS:Demon of the Waters, by Gregory Gibson

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Floods, Iraq help Schroeder scrape back

by R.J. Stove

News Weekly, October 5, 2002
Paradoxically, both main candidates in the German election on September 22 - incumbent Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and Bavaria's Christian Social Union Premier Edmond Stoiber - have every reason to be pleased with the result.

Stoiber came extremely close to rendering Schroeder the first Chancellor since the 1960s to be overthrown after only one term in office. Schroeder, for his part, defied the fallout from mass unemployment (four million adult Germans are jobless now, just as they were in 1998) and unacceptably high crime statistics, to scrape back into office when all opinion polls had declared him a political corpse.

Voter turnout

An electoral turnout (79 per cent), much higher than has been typical of Continental elections during recent years, enabled Schroeder to retain the Chancellorship by his fingernails.

He won 38.5 per cent of the popular vote this time around, as opposed to 41 per cent when he deposed Helmut Kohl four years ago.

In the 1998-2002 Bundestag (parliament), Schroeder's Social Democrats had a majority of 21. This majority has now been reduced to nine, and Schroeder depends even for that modest margin on the increasingly bellicose Green Party, led by Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, which put in its best-ever electoral performance since it first entered the Bundestag in 1983.

Were some or all of the Greens to change sides and vote alongside the Stoiber bloc (which consists not only of Stoiber's own party but of the broadly libertarian Free Democrats), Schroeder's term in office would be finished.

That this is more than a mere theoretical possibility for any Social Democrat Chancellor has been obvious since 1982, the year the Free Democrats destroyed Helmut Schmidt's career by crossing the floor and giving the Chancellorship to Kohl.

Little of political substance separated Schroeder from Stoiber. Both men have agreed to agree on most major domestic issues. Both favour an increase in the German birthrate, cutbacks in Third World immigration, a labour market far more regulated than America's, and some expansion of the European Union. (Admittedly, Stoiber opposes Turkey's EU membership drive, and will tolerate the Czech Republic's only on condition that the Czechs abandon their 64-year-old "Benes Laws" against the local German-speaking minority).

Neither man is exactly overburdened with charisma. The candidates' recent televised debates provoked hearty condemnations for their dullness and caution.

Why did the Greens do so well, and the Free Democrats (whose sanguine leader Guido Westerwelle boasted earlier in the year that they could confidently expect 18 per cent of the vote, but who crashed to a mere seven per cent) so badly? Two reasons, one narrowly environmental, and one more broadly foreign-affairs-oriented.

The terrible floods that afflicted Bavaria and Saxony last August - as well as, still more disastrously, Prague - inspired, in millions of Germans who had never previously considered voting Green, the belief that global warming had to take its share of blame for the resultant damage. But even if these floods had never occurred, the question of how far Germany should support the US against Iraq would have weakened, if not smashed, any hopes of consensus between the two biggest parties.

Last June The New York Times quoted complaints by Rudolf Scharping, then Schroeder's Defence Minister, that Bush's pro-war rhetoric sprang from the need to appease "a powerful - perhaps overly powerful - Jewish lobby". And while Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin denies ever having compared Bush to Hitler, as the German press reported she had done during the campaign, her undisputed censures of the White House did the Social-Democrat/Green alliance no electoral harm whatsoever.

Though Schroeder wrote an apologetic letter to Bush distancing himself from Daeubler-Gmelin's alleged remarks, he made it quite clear that any military alliance with the US would be on Germany's terms: "I will not click my heels", as he put it, to any demand Bush might make.

Stoiber first denounced such independent-mindedness on Schroeder's part as unduly confrontational, only to change his mind (and to start echoing it himself) when it began paying Schroeder opinion-poll dividends.

Against such clumsiness and failure to sound convincing on non-economic issues - until the August floods Stoiber did not even bother to appoint an environment spokesman - Stoiber's record of conspicuously dirigiste economic management as Bavarian Premier ("laptops and Lederhosen" is how his countrymen often refer to his recipe of social conservatism and unabashed hi-tech) counted for almost nothing.

One clear difference between Germany on the one hand, versus Austria, France and Italy on the other, is the absence of any hard-Right alternative to the major political organisations.

The Republican Party, which during the late 1960s inspired plethoric mass-media blather about "neo-Nazism", peaked in 1969 - although even then it scored a mere 4 per cent, well short of the 5 per cent threshold required for Bundestag representation - and, after another mild surge in the 1990 election, faded into complete insignificance.

  • R.J. Stove

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