Germany: The Poison That Doesn't Kill

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The reaction of the Washington hawks should dispel any doubt that it was opposition to war on Iraq that sealed victory for Gerhard Schröder's Red/Green coalition in Germany.

US secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld refused to meet his German counterpart the day after the election, and repeated the charge by George Bush's national security adviser that Schröder had 'poisoned relations' with the US.

Schröder has said he wants to repair relations with the US. He is certainly capable of buckling under. Despite continuing to speak against war on Iraq since the election, he is looking to free up US forces by sending German troops to replace them in Afghanistan. But Schröder faces strong pressure from the left. Tens of thousands of SPD members have told party officials they expect him to keep his word. And he was returned only because his Green coalition partners got their best ever parliamentary vote, 8.6 percent, which made up for a fall in support for the SPD.

The Greens have been compromised by participating in a government that has presided over an increase in unemployment to over four million, and by their support for two US-led wars--in the Balkans and Afghanistan. But they picked up votes--particularly from young people--because they were seen to be a left wing check on Schröder.

The former Communist PDS lost votes and faces a rift after its leader Gregor Gysi resigned over a sleaze scandal and its Berlin councillors voted through a cuts package with the SPD. The election is a blow for those who advocated moving towards the centre and joining coalitions such as the SPD-led Berlin administration. There is pressure, often from younger members, to take a more active stand against war and neoliberalism as a way to rejuvenate the party. Two days after the election PDS leader Gabi Zimmer called for street protests against the war.

There are similar tensions inside the Greens. Electoral success has not sweetened the disappointment left wing Green activists feel over the record of the last four years. They hope the party's stronger showing will be reflected in more left wing government policies. But there are powerful pressures pushing the other way. The German equivalent of the CBI has called for sweeping labour market deregulation. Schröder, despite his tack left in the election campaign, is committed to that. He has accepted, but not yet implemented, proposals from an employment commission to slash the unemployment benefit system.

The European Central Bank and German big business are also calling for public spending cuts to keep government borrowing within the targets set for joining the euro. This opens up the biggest potential challenge to Schröder. He relied heavily on support from the unions in the election. But he is headed for confrontation with them. A militant strike by construction workers broke out at the start of the campaign. The fear of a victory for hard right Tory Edmund Stoiber and warm words from Schröder about social solidarity over the last two months kept the lid on discontent with the government.

But the mood against Schröder is likely to develop quickly. And his weakened government is in worse shape to deal with it than in 1998 when there was rejoicing over the end of 16 years of Tory rule.