Clutching at straws

25th August 2005, Comments 0 comments

Well behind in the election race, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is grabbing with both hands every chance for political capital, such as the Bavarian floods. Leon Mangasarian asks if floods, a Nobel Prize nomination and Iran can save the 'Comeback Kid'.

Can an ill wind blow the Chancellor any good?

Suddenly next month's German election looks like the 2002 vote which Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder narrowly won after he waded into deadly Elbe River floods and led European opposition to the Iraq war.

Observers rubbed their eyes in disbelief as Schroeder - nicknamed 'The Comeback Kid' for pulling off upsets - announced he would be rushing to Bavaria on Thursday to visit regions devastated by floodwaters pouring out of the Alps.

The chancellery has declared the trip to Augsburg an official visit - not a campaign stop - meaning Schroeder can fly down in a sleek, Luftwaffe helicopter.

It was not clear if the German leader plans to use the helicopter to tour the entire flood region and make other stops. In 2002, he donned rubber boots and a Border Police raincoat during visits to devastated flood areas, showing that he was taking charge of relief efforts. TV producers and photographers loved it.

Damage limitation

For conservative challenger Angela Merkel - who leads Schroeder in opinion polls - this year's floods are a worrying development, even if they appear to be receding and have caused less damage.

Alarmed that electioneering looks bad amid a natural disaster, her Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) abruptly cancelled a rally planned in Berlin Wednesday with its Free Democratic Party ally.

A political cartoon in the city's Tagesspiegel newspaper showed a glum Merkel watching flood coverage on TV, while in the next room Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer are almost jumping in glee over the same pictures. "This is the turning point!" shouts Fischer.

History repeating?

Iraq was also injected back into the campaign on Tuesday when it was revealed that Schroeder has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in opposing the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq war.

*quote1*"Peace Prize for the Chancellor? Will this save him?" was the page one headline in Wednesday's Bild tabloid, Germany's biggest selling daily.

And further down was the caption "And the floods are back again" followed by a photo of a Merkel election poster half covered by rushing flood waters.

Schroeder is widely believed to have pulled off his razor-thin election win in 2002 thanks to the Elbe floods and the Iraq crisis which drew attention away from Germany's soaring unemployment and economic problems.

Dangerous manoeuvres

In another parallel to 2002, the Chancellor earlier this month shifted attention from Iraq to Iran and called on U.S. President George W. Bush to rule out using military force against Tehran's nuclear programme.

"Take the military option off the table - we have already seen it doesn't work!" said Schroeder at a rally with thousands of cheering supporters in his native Hanover.

Schroeder later added: "The situation is very serious. I view the military option as highly dangerous. Therefore I can clearly rule any participation of the German government under my leadership."

This was a clear echo of his repeated 'nein' to sending troops to Iraq which was a stock part of his campaign speech in 2002.

Schroeder was replying to remarks by Bush in which the U.S. president repeated he would consider using force against Iran as a last resort to halt its nuclear programme.

Too far behind

With less than four weeks to Germany's planned September 18 election, the question is whether this mix of floods, Iraq and Iran can save the Chancellor's ruling Social Democratic (SPD) coalition with Greens from defeat.

The answer of most analysts is 'no'.

*quote2*Klaus-Peter Schoeppner, head of the Emnid polling agency, says Schroeder has remained a constant 13 percentage points behind Merkel and that there is no way he can catch up in the time left.

"The threat in 2005 is the economic situation," said Schoeppner in a Bild interview. Although major German companies are posting record earnings, the economy has been in stagnation for five years and unemployment is almost 12 per cent.

Forsa polling agency chief Manfred Guellner agreed: "The whole thing won't help the SPD."

Other concerns

University of Mainz political scientist Juergen Falter also downplays Schroeder's chances by saying jobs and the economy are the top voter concern.

Only Elizabeth Noelle of the Allensbach polling agency cautioned that Schroeder's charisma should not be ruled out as a major election factor.

Merkel's CDU/CSU and FDP ally leads in Germany's top six polls with between 49 per cent and 51 per cent. In contrast, Schroeder's SPD-Greens government has between 36 per cent and 38 per cent.

A newly founded Left Party is at between 8 per cent and 10 per cent. Some analysts predict a strong Left Party result, combined with last minute Schroeder gains, could hinder Merkel from winning a majority.

This could force Merkel to seek a grand coalition with Schroeder's SPD as junior partner - a constellation both leaders say they don't want.

August 2005

[Copyright DPA with Expatica 2005]

Subject: German news, Gerhard Schroeder, German elections, Bavarian floods

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