One last chance for Gerhard Schroeder?
Despite failing to keep his majority in Sunday's German elections, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder remains defiant he will lead the country for another four years.
“I regard myself as confirmed in office by our country and intend that there will be a stable government under my leadership,” Schroeder told supporters of his SPD on Sunday evening.
Preliminary official results gave Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance a narrow plurality of 35.2 per cent against 34.3 per cent for Schroeder’s SPD.
The results suggested Schroeder could pursue a grand coalition with Merkel’s conservatives or even pursue an alliance with the Greens and the Liberal FDP, although the latter two had ruled out such a ‘traffic light’ coalition during the campaign.
A risky move
The 61-year-old Schroeder took the risky decision to call early elections last May 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.
During a short, sharp campaign, Schroeder showed some of the political savvy that helped him in 2002, when he came from behind to be narrowly re-elected.
With the first results in Sunday, he declared that his party had achieved what many had declared impossible during the campaign.
The polls had said he could not win: the economy is barely growing, unemployment is near its all-time record, and voters know that federal spending cuts are likely after the dust of the election has settled.
Schroeder this time also lacked a touchstone issue, like his vow in 2002 not to send troops for the Iraq war, or an opportunity to display leadership talents, like his direction of emergency relief during deadly Elbe River floods in the summer of 2002.
Instead the election focus remained where Schroeder did not want it: on the weak economy, near-record unemployment and the likelihood of sharp federal spending cuts after the dust of the election has settled.
Occupying the centre
A former premier of the state of Lower Saxony, Schroeder came to power in 1998 by defeating conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl after occupying the political centre, or ‘Neue Mitte’ as he called it.
Back then Schroeder styled himself a pro-industry mover-and- shaker, posing for photos chomping fat Cuban cigars and making sure everyone knew he was a member of Volkswagen AG’s supervisory board.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” was Schroeder’s top theme, and he told voters that if his government failed to get unemployment below 3.5 million by the next election, they should toss him out of office.
By 2002 unemployment surpassed 4 million and early this year the jobless tally hit 5 million – the highest rate since the early 1930s.
However, many Social Democrat and Green voters supported him once again, even though Schroeder’s pro-industry reforms, styled the Agenda 2010, did not bring any economic upturn in time for elections and his turn away from old-style social democracy was unpopular with the trade union movement.
Schroeder’s base had become so eroded by last year that Schroeder resigned as SPD national chairman and handed the post to a trusted lieutenant, Franz Muentefering.
The party today is in a sorry state, with many of its leftists, led by former national chairman Oskar Lafontaine, breaking away to form an electoral alliance with the former East Germany communists, the Left Party.
Internationally, Schroeder had a close relationship with French President Jacques Chirac, but often had frosty relations with other E.U. leaders. He also spent family holidays with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has forged a closer personal and political friendship.
His relations with U.S. President George W. Bush were rocky. Bush refused to talk to Schroeder for almost a year out of anger at the chancellor highlighting opposition to the Iraq war to win re-election in 2002. Ties between the two leaders have since improved.
His main geostrategic initiative – support for Turkish membership in the E.U. – roused little enthusiasm among Germans.
Despite his anti-Iraq war views, Schroeder was the first German leader in the post-war era to order forces into combat during NATO operations in the 1999 Kosovo war. He also approved sending several thousand mainly non-combat troops to Afghanistan.
His economic policies have been based on tax cuts, a reform of social welfare and modestly trimming the maze of German laws that have often made it difficult to do business in Germany.
During his first term, Schroeder pushed through a historic new citizenship law which got rid of legislation from the Kaiser’s era defining German citizenship by bloodlines. The new law made it easier for foreigners living in the country to get a German passport.
His second term was complicated by opposition domination of the Bundesrat, parliament’s upper house, which has to approve many laws. He also had to suffer a conservative nominee, Horst Koehler, being elected as Germany’s mainly ceremonial president.
The political deadlock in Berlin compelled him to use a system of shifting alliances with state premiers and summits with the opposition, but even those methods were in vain after the opposition won the most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, in May.
Famed for his trademark lion’s grin and craggy good looks, Schroeder was often helped in moments of crisis by his media savvy and his air of gravitas in dealing with critical issues.
Schroeder’s life and career have been marked by the same sharp shifts and changes of his seven years in the chancellery.
As the firebrand leader of the SPD youth group in the 1970s Schroeder was a radical leftist.
“Yes, I am a Marxist,” is one of his famous quotes from this period.
Trained as a lawyer, Schroeder had his own practice and once defended a Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist. He was Lower Saxony state premier from 1990 to 1998 and served in the German federal parliament – then in Bonn – from 1980 to 1986.
Rags to riches
Growing up in post-war poverty with his widowed mother and four siblings, Schroeder never knew his father, who was killed in 1944 while serving with the Nazi German army in Romania.
His mother – to whom he remains very close – worked as a cleaning lady for 40 years and Schroeder’s childhood memories include stealing food to help feed the family and evading debt collectors.
One biography describes Schroeder as a rags to riches man and the Chancellor stresses he has never forgotten his roots. His favourite song reportedly is Elvis Presley’s ‘In the Ghetto’.
Political shifts have been mirrored by Schroeder’s changing women.
A lover of heavy fare such as Berlin ‘currywurst’, a fatty sausage doused in spicy sauce, Schroeder reportedly left his third wife in part because she was trying to force vegetarian food on him.
Despite the repeated marriages Schroeder has no biological children.
He and his fourth wife Doris, a perky, blonde ex-reporter 20 years younger than himself, have an adoptive daughter, who was born in Russia, as well as an older girl born to his wife in a previous marriage.
Subject: German news, Gerhard Schroeder