Wednesday, May 25, 2005

BERLIN. — After seven years, Germans seem to have had enough of socialist Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. This past Sunday the German opposition won a landslide election victory in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, an industrial region regarded as the cradle of the German labor movement.

The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) advanced almost 8 points to around 45 percent, enough to wrest power from Mr. Schroeder’s Social Democrats (SPD) for only the first time in 39 years in the state. The result might have a significant effect on trans-Atlantic relations. Germany could soon become a reliable partner to the United States again.

This election loss in Germany’s biggest state was the worst in a string of defeats the chancellor admits has cast doubt on whether the country trusts his economic reforms and unpopular cuts of the welfare system, designed to eventually lower the unemployment rate of more than 10 percent.

Mr. Schroeder immediately went on the offensive, and announced he would seek general elections in the fall, one year earlier than scheduled.

His sudden move caught the Christian Democratic Union and its junior partner the Libertarians (FDP) by complete surprise. However the vast majority of the German media calls this move a “political suicide.”

Now, even if Mr. Schroeder could win the general elections together with his coalition partner the Greens, he could not even pass a bill. Out of the 16 German states only five are controlled by the SPD. The Christian Democrats can block in the Bundesrat — the equivalent to the U.S. Senate — any initiative of a Schroeder government. One can now safely say the Schroeder era is drawing to a close.

The same is true for the small but influential coalition partner, the Greens, who suffered significantly from the involvement of party leader Joschka Fischer in a recently surfaced visa scandal. The German foreign minister conceded in public testimony in April he did not act to curb visa abuses that allowed thousands of eastern European criminals into Germany and the EU between 2000 and 2002 — even though his own diplomats kept warning him about the problem.

The Christian Democrats and the Liberals won because they were able to mobilize their voters, whereas a significant number of potential Social Democrats either abstained or voted for a left-wing splinter group.

Mr. Schroeder’s reforms of the costly German welfare system are considered too inadequate to counter the country’s severe economic crisis. To traditional Socialists, Mr. Schroeder is a “traitor” to capitalism. The truth is, Mr. Schroeder, who took over from conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1998 with the promise to bring down the high unemployment, was unable to address the real economic problems. Instead, he distracted the German public with aggressive anti-U.S. demagoguery and by this was able to win re-election in 2002. He bought himself time but did not solve the nation’s problems.

“The reforms require the support of our citizens,” Mr. Schroeder said after the election. “The bitter result for my party in North Rhine-Westphalia has called into question the political basis for continuing these reforms.”

Here, one can see him already trying to distract from the real reasons for his party’s defeat — again.

German welfare reform certainly is no longer questioned by the majority of Germans, but rather by the majority of his Social-Democrats, who look backward, trapped in old visions of the last century. A new government, run by the Christian Democrats and the Libertarians, will have to go even further with the reforms than Mr. Schroeder did. A deep and far-reaching reform of German labor laws and social benefits is regarded by most economists as essential to stem the steady decline in Europe’s largest economy.

But a new government in early fall of 2005 would not only change German domestic politics. More importantly, it would change German foreign policy.

One can expect from a conservative government in Berlin steps toward reconciling relations with Washington. Perhaps there will still be no German troops sent to Iraq, because for any out of area mission, the government needs a two-third majority in the parliament. But in other areas, for example to get the Iranians to stop their nuclear weapons program, a new German government will be tougher, the Washington-Berlin relationship will warm up again and the one between Paris and Berlin will cool a bit — all to the advantage of U.S. foreign policy.

If Germany — the EU’s most important country — swings back in fall and kind of line up with the U.S. on international issues, for President Bush a dream could come true:

Europe, except of notorious naysayer France, will be on the side of U.S. foreign politics, especially concerning the Broader Middle East initiative: democracy and freedom for the Muslim world.

Opposition leader Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats, who could become Germany’s first female chancellor, said: “Every day that Germany isn’t ruled by this coalition (Schroeder/Fischer) would be a good day for Germany.”

Initial opinion polls after the historic state election show, while Mrs. Merkel is not held in high regard by the general public, the majority want a political change. They don’t care who the next chancellor is as long as it isn’t Gerhard Schroeder.

Tom Goeller is a writer for The Washington Times in Berlin.

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