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22.6.05

Why Schröder’s Move to Early Elections Makes Sense 

(published first on the International Affairs Forum.)

Surprise and bafflement have beset political analysts when German chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for new elections after the sound defeat of his Social Democratic party in North Rhine-Westphalia, the Social Democrat’s heartland for many decades. Why would he risk almost certain defeat in a general election with opinion polls showing the SPD and the chancellor at almost historic lows? But the more one looks at the situation and Schröder’s alternatives, the more his move makes sense.


Messrs. Schröder and Mütefering - to whose Drummer's Beat dost the SPD dance?
Late in the race, the leading candidate in the North Rhine-Westphalia elections, Franz Müntefering, managed to close the gap between the SPD and the Christian Democrats, by switching to an outspoken anti-business campaign. This may have worked during the heat of the campaign, but it undermined the very policies that Schröder has implemented in order to make Germany competitive in the global market and lower the record unemployment that is Germany’s heaviest social burden. Had Schröder remained as the chancellor for another 16 months, the left wing of the SPD would have gained in strength, momentum and made further reforms impossible and likely tried to overturn some past achievements. This debate is now cut off at the root and the SPD must rally around Schröder, their only feasible candidate. Schröder, who actually believes in the necessity of these, however insufficient and clumsily executed and highly unpopular reforms, cannot want the left-wingers of his party to ruin his work so far. Not surprisingly, the strongest criticism of the call for new elections comes from the left corner of his party who expressed their need for “more time to reflect on the implications for the SPD of our latest electoral defeat” (Andrea Nahles). Translated, this means: We would have liked to confirm that only a strong shift to the left can rescue the SPD and we, the left wing, needed more time to consolidate our power until 2006. This is something the Chancellor is not willing to grant them.

Instead, he shows chutzpah and is willing to use his charisma in the gamble that he might defeat the charm-deficient, dour opposition leader Angela Merkel. If this were to come true, Schröder would gain a tremendous boost both within his party and in Germany and be able to continue his reforms, presumably with no interference from his own, pesky party members and less obstructionism from the opposition that controls the upper house. The unnamed SPD MP that was quoted in the FT as saying that the “highly amateurish” move to early elections will only lead the SPD into the opposition for years to come and that the party would have nothing to gain, even in the case of a victory, where they would again be facing the CDU/CSU opposition in the Bundesrat might be right about the SPD not gaining much, but is clearly wrong as far his assessment of a possible victory. Then again, this move is not so much about the SPD but Schröder. He has nothing to gain from being a solitary figure, a 16-month lame duck, opposed from within the party and facing a tough opposition that is not bound to go out of its way to make his life easier.

The reforms so far may yet provide an improvement in the German economy, but even Schröder knows that it is not going to be substantial enough to run on that record in 2006. Better to appear as daring, vigorous and challenge the voters with a message that he is willing to put his policies to their vote, while surely mentioning that the CDU/CSU is only going to continue with similar, more drastic reforms, even if they are not going to spell any of that out. He can then suggest that Germans continue with his reforms that, albeit unpopular, are necessary and are guided by social responsibility that the SPD still has some claim to, while warning the pro-business CDU of merely doing the former with ‘none’ of the latter. He probably won’t win, but he may well see the SPD to finish significantly better than anyone would be willing to predict now, thus consolidating his power within the party once more and at the same time ensuring that the reform policies will be continued by the conservative coalition, possibly setting them up for defeat in 2009, lest they manage to drastically improve the economic situation in Germany within four years.

From a legacy-point of view, it could be argued that Schröder, with the best for the country in mind, cut his own party off before it could do too much damage and avoided 16 months of gridlock at an important time for the country’s future. And while his decision is in fact only positive for the country, one would be naïve to think Schröder as so selfless. Probably more than the average politician, Schröder has a healthy sense of what benefits him, and everything but a complete disaster at the poll for his party will benefit him in the here and now, not just the history books. The only losers are going to be the ever-yesteryear leftists who believe that the current pressing economic situation can be avoided, simply by closing their eyes and denying the needs for the overdue liberalisation of the products and services markets. Schröder thankfully is not one of them. Their loss is everybody else’s – most of all the unemployed Germans’ gain.

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