Erhard Haubold

Swiss bankers in Zurich, always a good barometer for European politics, give him a few more months. And even in his own Social Democratic Party (SPD), observers think it only a question of time that Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will throw the towel. Following the disastrous showing of the SPD, Germany’s oldest political party, at the European Parliamentary elections two weeks ago, Germany’s most powerful man has entered his last battle. His survival is doubtful at best, and so is the future of the entire “68 generation” of politicians who made their name with violent protests in Germany and France against “restauration” and the American war in Vietnam. Europeans are not much interested in EU-politics. Only about a third of them went to the polling stations. Those who did in Germany, gave the Social Democrats the worst result in their post-war history, just about 21 per cent of the popular vote. Over all, the old party of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt risks loosing its character as a peoples’ party equal to the conservative-bourgeois grouping of CDU/CSU. And there are other danger signs: even the opposition coalition of CDU/CSU has lost some votes, whereas small parties like the Greens, the former communists and rightwing groups have gained. In this time of economic crisis voters abandon mainstream parties and move to the political fringes.

Schroeder, who six years ago started as the “fun chancellor,” faces the ruins of his politics. His friends argue that he pays the price for trying to reform Germany: its over regulated labour market, its powerful unions, its costly health and pension systems. Germans realise that their comfortable welfare state cannot be financed much longer. At the same time they react with their hip pocket nerve when it comes to cuts in pensions, higher costs of medical care, longer working hours or reductions of unemployment benefits. Schroeder says he will continue on the reform path, despite the electoral losses. He is applauded by industrialists and damned by union chiefs and many traditionalists in his own party. Schroeder, and the entire political class in Germany have dramatically lost respect and confidence of the voters. They don’t trust leaders who once promised them “flourishing landscapes in the East,” who one day speak of tax reductions and next day of shrinking social benefits while all the time unemployment is going up and Germany moving down on the list of wealthy nations. Even a normally friendly newspaper like “Berliner Zeitung” laments that Schroeder changed his politics like his shirts. They call incompetent a man who became chancellor without a comprehensive programme of governance, who originally promised to reverse the cautious social reforms by his predecessor Kohl, then applauded Tony Blair’s New Labour, only to become the “friend of the bosses” a little later.

There is anger among young members of a party that has lost, due to globalisation, part of its traditional clientele of workers, liberal office workers and Marxist academics. And that has lost its core competence: to finance the justified demands of people for work and social security. There is no challenger of Schroeder in his own party which suffers from a remarkable lack of young talent. Thus, Schroeder may well continue in office until 2006. Or he might give up before, if the state elections next year produce, as is expected, further substantial defeats for the Social Democrats and give a two-third majority in the state-dominated upper house of parliament to the opposition.

Haubold, a freelancer, writes for THT from Berlin