Spooked by sagging poll ratings and a tanking economy, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder kicked off his re-election campaign three weeks ahead of schedule Monday, with a speech designed to appeal to the nation's left, especially in its rejection of German involvement in a U.S. war against Iraq.
As Britain's Guardian observed, "Schröder is personally well-liked by the electorate," and he has performed adequately in office. "The chancellor has rarely shone, but he has not stumbled significantly either." Schröder has improved Germany's international profile, "finally enabling the armed forces to take on peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan and elsewhere," but his re-election is threatened by a series of political scandals in his ruling coalition and his failure to meet his promise of halving unemployment rolls by the end of his first term. According to the Independent, "Schröder's economic record is indeed the chief source of his vulnerability, less because his government has been notably incompetent than because it has fallen short of the targets it set itself. And while one reason is the inclement economic climate the world over, another is his government's signal failure to reform Germany's ossified employment and welfare structures."
The Independent described the possibility of military intervention in Iraq as a "lifeline" for Schröder. An Aug. 4 opinion poll showed 84 percent of the electorate "firmly opposed" German military involvement in Iraq. Schröder rejects "adventures abroad," while his rival, Edmund Stoiber, is committed to using German troops if there is a U.N. mandate. In Monday's speech, the chancellor also sought to pass responsibility for Germany's growing unemployment (the just-released July statistics showed a total of 4.1 million jobless—the highest figure of his four years in office) onto big business, which, he implied, was conspiring to inflate the figures to help Stoiber. He said, "German industry should stop acting like the conservatives' fifth column." He also rejected the "American way" of business favored by his opponent, declaring, "We have to revise our ideas about the American model. Recent events have shown it to mean bankruptcies and exploitation of the little man; this is not the German way."
With seven weeks to go before the Sept. 22 election, few commentators were willing to write off Schröder, known to be a canny campaigner. Several papers contrasted the energetic chancellor with the wooden Stoiber, described by the Guardian as "grey and ungripping." The Daily Telegraph suggested that the candidates' regional roots may be significant (Schröder is from Hanover in northern Germany, while Stoiber is from Bavaria in the south-east): "The Protestant north, cosmopolitan and liberal in its own eyes, has always looked down on southern Germany's provincialism and perceived lack of culture. The south's Catholicism serves to deepen the country's oldest fault-line." Overall, though, the papers just had fun with the yin-yang candidates. The Independent reported: "Mr Stoiber's campaigning can be calamitous. He kicked a football into the head of a woman bystander, suffered vertigo while being taken up Cologne cathedral spire and refused to dance on a visit to Berlin's top disco." Schröder, on the other hand, is "warm and spontaneous" on the stump. The chancellor's "secret weapon" is his 38-year-old fourth wife, Doris, a former journalist. "Mr Stoiber has been married to Karin, 58, for 30 years. She wears Bavarian dirndls and lists her idea of a good time as reading and shopping."