Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A major electoral upset in Germany has caused Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to give up the last year of his term and all but admit his government is finished. On Sunday, the Social Democrats suffered a devastating defeat in one of their strongholds, North Rhine-Westphalia, home to about a quarter of the country’s population and a place the SPD had dominated for 39 years. The SPD took about 37 percent of the vote, according to exit polls, while the center-right Christian Democratic Union surged 8 points to 45 percent. The vote gives the Christian Democrats and their allies, the liberal Free Democrats, 101 seats in a regional parliament of 188.

After the defeat, Mr. Schroeder surprised the opposition by calling for elections this September in lieu of the planned fall 2006 vote. The move was widely interpreted as a sign that Mr. Schroeder feared defections from the party and sought to head off a collapse. Meanwhile, the opposition is gaining and appears to have the SPD on the run. The Christian Democrats now control 10 of Germany’s 16 states and the latest poll data show them taking 46 percent of the electorate compared to 29 percent for Mr. Schroeder’s party if elections were held today. If the Christian Democrats continue performing well, they could be propelled onto center stage in Germany.

That would be ironic, since the leftist Social Democrats are being thrown out at least in part for not being leftist enough. When Mr. Schroeder unveiled his reform package “Agenda 2010” in March 2003 to reform Germany’s social-security program and its labor markets, he hoped that public opposition would be softened by the economic rewards. The reforms were modest and drew criticism from business leaders for not going far enough, but apparently were more than North Rhine-Westphalia’s electorate could handle, not least because the economic rewards Mr. Schroeder anticipated never materialized. Germany’s number of unemployed has been hovering just under 5 million and reached a postwar high of 5.2 million in January. In a somber admission of defeat Sunday, Mr. Schroeder announced that “The political support for our reforms to continue has been called into question.” To say the least.

What would a center-right German government look like? For starters, its likely head would be Angela Merkel, the chairman of the CDU, who could become Germany’s first woman chancellor if elected. Born in the former East Germany, Mrs. Merkel has a Ph.D. in physics and joined the East German democratic movement in 1989 before becoming a government spokeswoman after the Berlin Wall came down. She served as head of the Environment Ministry under then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and rose to national prominence five years ago when she was the first cabinet member to break with Mr. Kohl over a slush-fund scandal.

The European press has been making comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, something Mrs. Merkel’s supporters have played down. As a supporter of homosexual rights and abortion rights who hasn’t shied from clashing with pro-lifers, she is a social liberal by American standards. But on the economy she is about as conservative as an aspirant for high office in Germany can be and is expected to pursue reforms on taxes, pensions and health. No doubt Mrs. Merkel would have to contend with the same forces that undid Mr. Schroeder.

A Christian Democrat resurgence in Germany wouldn’t necessarily solve the ongoing disagreements between the United States and Germany over things like Iraq, trade and international law. In the war on terror and the Islamist cultural threat to Germany, the Christian Democrats may prove more vigorous than the current Social Democrat government. There’s little doubt the Christian Democrats would be easier to work with than Mr. Schroeder. How strange that we have the German left to thank for it.

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