Is Schroeder really ready to go?

4th October 2005, Comments 0 comments

When Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder offered on German Unity Day to step down in order to make way for a stable government, many thought that Germany's post-election stalemate was finally over. But is the chancellor really ready to quit, or is his offer just a clever ploy? Ernest Gill looks at what Germany's wiliest politician is up to.

It was German Unity Day Monday, and for two hours the German people could have been forgiven for believing that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder meant what he said when he offered to step down in the interests of ending an unprecedented post-election deadlock.

Is Schroeder really ready to go, or is his promise to step down just a ploy?

But by the time people came home from unification festivities and turned on the evening news, it was clear that Schroeder had been engaged in a ploy to shore up his sagging political fortunes while thwarting chances for his conservative challenger to become the first woman chancellor in German history.

Short-lived hopes of an end to the deadlock that has paralysed Europe's biggest economy since the September 18 general election were dashed amid predictions by pundits that the political wrangling could now drag on well into November.

Ready to go

It was mid-afternoon on Monday when Schroeder signalled a willingness to step down to make way for "a stable government", saying he would leave it up to the leaders of his own party to decide whether it was time for him to do so.

"I shall accept any decision," he said in a statement he repeated word-for-word for several news outlets and broadcast networks.

By prime-time news time, however, leaders of his embattled Social Democratic Party (SPD) emerged from an impromptu meeting saying they had urged him to stay on in a bid to strengthen the party's hand in negotiations with the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) on forming a "grand coalition".

SPD Chairman Franz Muenterfering said party leaders unanimously had urged Schroeder to remain the party's standard-bearer.

"We are the largest party in Germany," Muenterfering said. "We stand on equal footing with the Christian Democrats and we stand behind the chancellor in solidarity."

Mounting pressure

Schroeder's remarks came amid mounting public pressure for a resolution of the deadlock and with opinion surveys showing only 18 per cent of Germans agreed that he should stay on as chancellor.

But even as he spoke them, some analysts warned that his words sounded uncannily similar to resignation threats he has made at several critical junctures in his tenure as chancellor.

Repeatedly, when faced with opposition from leftists within his party to controversial welfare and social-benefits reforms, Schroeder has offered to resign and call new elections. The dissidents backed him up every time.

*quote1*"When his back is to the wall, Schroeder threatens to quit and the result is that the SPD rallies around him since they have no other credible leader," one analyst told RTL television Monday evening.

Back to the wall

His back was to the wall last May when he in effect told the nation he was resigning unless he got a vote of confidence in a general election held a year ahead of time.

He took the risky decision to call early elections after his party was thrashed in a regional vote and he faced a legislative logjam for the rest of his scheduled term ending in 2006.

All the polls showed he would be defeated. But during a short, sharp campaign, Schroeder showed some of the political pizzazz that helped him in 2002, when he came from behind to be narrowly re- elected.

And when the counting was done on election night September 18, his Social Democrats had come from behind to be within one percentage point of the opposition Christian Democrats.

Vowing to stay

On election night, as a national television audience looked in in amazement, Schroeder vowed to stay on as chancellor, come what might.

He loudly proclaimed himself the primary victor, bolstered by voter returns showing the SPD at 34 per cent, just one point behind the CDU/CSU at 35 per cent.

His remarks that night were so loudly proclaimed that he was forced later to issue a public apology for "clearly inappropriate" behaviour and to assure Germans that "alcohol had not played any role" in that embarrassing incident, an unprecedented statement for a German leader.


*quote2*At Monday's news conference, stunned journalists listened in disbelief as Muenterfering said the SPD would continue to support Schroeder, even after Sunday's humiliating defeat and his own remarks earlier in the day.

One reporter asked: "Every few weeks the chancellor says he's ready to step down and then the SPD rallies around him again. How can you explain that to the German people?"

"There's nothing to explain," the SPD chairman said. "We stand behind the chancellor and our support has never wavered."

October 2005

Copyright DPA with Expatica

Subject: German news, German elections, Gerhard Schroeder, Angela Merkel

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