Germany’s center-left ruling coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens won a narrow victory in Sunday’s parliamentary election, bucking the rightist trend in France and elsewhere in western Europe. It was also a Pyrrhic victory earned at the expense of the German-American relationship. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s campaign statement opposing a U.S. attack against Iraq boosted his popularity at home but damaged his reputation in Washington.
The election results show that German voters remain highly critical of U.S. unilateralism. Many people in other U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere are also making a strong case against the go-it-alone policy of President George W. Bush’s administration. Mr. Schroeder stands out as the only Western leader to categorically reject military action against Iraq. He persists, but the Western alliance could suffer.
The German chancellor’s antiwar position on Iraq, even if it was designed to improve the electoral chances of his embattled coalition, has struck a sympathetic chord among many people in Japan, where pacifist sentiments also remain strong. The two nations have much in common in other areas as well, such as foreign policy and economic development.
The election was one of the closest in postwar Germany, with Mr. Schroeder and his conservative rival, Mr. Edmund Stoiber, running neck and neck down to the wire. Early in the campaign, however, the SPD-Greens coalition was fighting an uphill battle against Mr. Stoiber’s Christian Union alliance (CDU/CSU). With unemployment at close to 10 percent, the Schroeder government came under fire for failing to lift the economy out of recession.
By contrast, the CDU/CSU alliance was gaining support with promises of tax cuts and immigration controls. Mr. Stoiber, who had engineered an economic recovery in his home state of Bavaria, pledged to achieve a similar success on a national scale. However, the severe floods that hit eastern Germany last month turned the tide in favor of Mr. Schroeder, who acted swiftly to rebuild the stricken region.
The chancellor’s unequivocal rejection of any military involvement in Iraq — he said Germany would never send troops there, thus reassuring many war-wary voters — also helped the ruling camp. Beyond that, it seems that Mr. Schroeder’s personal charisma also played a part in bringing off a coalition victory.
However, the thin majority of nine seats — less than half the pre-election number of 21 — portends difficulties for the second-term Schroeder administration. The ruling coalition won 306 seats — 251 for the SPD and 55 for the Greens. The opposition camp took a total of 297 seats — 248 for the Christian Union group, 47 for the Liberal Free Democrats and two for the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), one-time Communists in the former East Germany.
The SPD won 38.5 percent of the vote, down 2.4 points from the previous election. The CDU/CSU, however, gained 3.3 points, though its share of the vote was the same as that of the SPD. The big winner was the Green Party, which increased its share by 1.6 points to 8.6 percent. This makes it highly likely that the Greens, headed by Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, will have a greater say in the Schroeder government.
The coalition victory, however, has dampened hopes for economic reform, sending German stock prices into a tail spin. Organized labor, which supports the SPD, is seen as a major barrier to reform. Diplomatically, the Schroeder statement against war with Iraq makes it urgently necessary to repair German-U.S. ties. Washington has expressed its “displeasure” through its embassy in Germany.
The diplomatic fallout has been compounded by reports quoting German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin as saying that President Bush was using Hitlerian methods over Iraq to deflect attention from domestic problems. Mr. Schroeder, who sent a letter of apology to Mr. Bush over the weekend, has said he will not reappoint the minister. However, the chancellor has indicated he will honor his campaign pledge that Germany will not join a U.S. strike on Iraq.
Not surprisingly, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to meet German Defense Minister Peter Struck at a recent informal NATO defense ministers meeting held earlier this week in Warsaw. There is little doubt that the Bush administration is growing distrustful of the Schroeder administration. Now the chancellor faces an agonizing dilemma: resolving the rift with Washington over a possible invasion of Iraq while heeding domestic opinion that opposes such a military venture.
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