Crikey dreams of building a network of expat Australians as columnists from around the world and have been lucky enough to discover Emma O’Brien in Berlin who has filed this excellent piece on the upcoming German federal elections.

The staunch refusal of current Chancellor Gerhard Schroder to pledge his support for the military attack on Iraq has incurred criticism from the USA, but given Schroder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) an unanticipated boost in the polls, just over a week before the federal election on 22 September.

The significant shift has seen his ‘red-green coalition’ of the SPD and the Greens gain three points as prefered government, to put it equal with the conservative opposition, an alliance of Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union, led by the current President of the southern state of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber.

In the last of the nationally-broadcast TV-debates, fourteen days before the election, Schroder, often called the ‘Media-Chancellor’ for his charismatic prowess before the television cameras, was declared the clear winner of the duel after a spirited and statesman-like performance that focused on his refusal to take part in a US-led attack.

“I am against military intervention in Iraq,” he pronounced.

Like most European leaders, Schroder’s reaction after the events of September 11 was to pledge “unreserved solidarity” with the US and support for the ‘war on terror’. He has renewed his country’s endorsement of the international fight to stop terrorism but is reluctant to include an attack on Iraq as a necessary part of that battle.

“The US has changed their aim,” said Schroder to journalists on the anniversary of September 11. “First it was to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq, now there has been a strategy-change, with the aim to overthrow the (Iraqi) regime, that’s why our ‘No’ is well substantiated.”

Schroder cited the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and it’s re-building as well as what he described as the “absence of a clear plan” of what to do with Iraq after a war with the inevitable aim of deposing Saddam Hussein as reasons for his steadfast “No” to any involvement in an attack.

“I think we should venture to find a resolution diplomatically, I do not think all diplomatic avenues have been exhausted,” he said to the Berliner Zeitung, the capital’s main newspaper.

German soldiers already constitute a large proportion of the peace-keeping troops still stationed in Afghanistan, yet they are able to mobilise a third more soldiers that Great Britain.

The use by the US of a fleet of state-of-the-art military tanks, currently stationed in Kuwait has been entirely ruled out by Germany’s Green Foreign Minister and most popular politician, Joschka Fischer.

Not surprisingly, Schroder’s refusal to participate in an attack that already has the EU’s other great power- Britain, on board, has encountered firm criticism from the US Ambassador in Berlin, Daniel Coates, a Republican political appointee and personal friend of George Bush.

“Germany is isolating itself in Europe,” said Coates on the eve of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. “We need to do something so as to remove the threat of mass weapons of destruction from the world.”

“We need to come together, to protect Europe, America and the rest of the world,” he said. “I hope we can achieve this.”

The situation was not helped when a member of the SPD was quoted in a regional newspaper comparing George Bush to Julius Caesar and Ambassador Coates to a particularly hard-line Russian Ambassador who was stationed in East Berlin during the hey-day of the GDR.

When Schroder first stated his unwillingness to take part in an attack he did so in a similarly reluctant European climate. Since then, French President, Jacques Chirac has backflipped on his previously un-conditional refusal to take part in an attack, he now says he would possibly offer France’s support if the United Nations gave their go-ahead. Spain has also thrown its weight behind the attack, regardless of whether the UN grants a mandate. Schroder is not exactly isolated in Europe with the EU Presidency and Kofi Annan reluctant to support a US attack, but he is still under pressure. Germany is effectively the largest european country yet to throw their hat in with the US.

Schroder has been met with cautious criticism from a wary Opposition, who know how unpopular any deployment of German troops is in the electorate. The decision in 1998 to send German soldiers into Kosovo was met with intense public outcry. It was the first time since WWII that troops had assembled on foreign soil and the move attracted heavy criticism from a nation that still remembers the horror of their military past all too well.

This has not stopped some more conservative members of the opposition murmuring about potential damage done to the Germany’s friendship with the US, who many Germans still see as the country’s greatest post-WWII benefactor. “Schroder is going it alone to get the popular vote and is damaging German interests, especially with the United States,” said Wolfgang Schauble, the Union’s expert on security and foreign policy.

During the TV-duel and in subsequent interviews the conservative Union’s candidate for Chancellor, Edmund Stoiber, has expressed his willingness to consider joining the attacks if the UN is forthcoming with a mandate.

The smaller neo-liberal FDP party, who some commentators speculate will hold the balance of power come September 22, has also hit out at Schroder for “damaging” Germany’s relationship with the US, but is yet to come out in support of German involvement in an attack. The Greens are largely in agreement with the SPD, their coalition partner. The post-communist PDS, which is expected to win a significant number of places in parliament because of a resurgence of support in the east, is the only party to outright condemn the possibility of German participation in Iraq and the ‘war on terror’ in general.

A last gallant stance on an attack on Iraq may also not be enough to get a government who has suffered a host policy set-backs and failures since winning power, over the line on September 22. The SPD has had to fight a tough election battle with their failure to significantly reduce unemployment the biggest obstacle to them regaining government.

The SPD won the 1998 election on a pledge to get unemployment below 3.5million nationally. One week before the election of 2002, there are almost 4million people throughout Germany without a job, levels almost as high as when Schroder took over from conservative stalwart Helmut Kohl. Areas of the former East Germany have been the hardest hit, the SPD having little success in gaining jobs lost in regions where industry has headed west to greener pastures since the fall of the Wall. In the poorer areas of some eastern towns unemployment is as high as 60%.

The recently contentious introduction of a new law governing immigration and asylum has also been of constant interest to the electorate. Some see new arrivals as just more fodder to be included in the unemployment statistics, while others have declared the law in violation of the Geneva Convention because it limits the age of children allowed to immigrate with their parents to twelve years of age, the Convention states they can be up to 16.

High petrol prices made even higher by the Greens’ enforced ‘eco-tax’ on fuel has also caused disquiet in the electorate.

Yet despite the fact many pollsters still predicting victory for Edmund Stoiber, some are skeptical that northern Germany and the former communist states would ever vote for a Bavarian.

The Queensland of Germany, Bavaria was once a renegade province that tried to cede independence from the Weimar Republic. It was also Hitler’s power base. The state has a long tradition of arch-conservatism, something that doesn’t sit well with many in Germany. With their lilting, much-lampooned accents, love of sausage and the leather dungarees that almost constitute the state’s unofficial uniform, it is difficult for many German voters to envisage Stoiber, the current state-President of Bavaria, as their next national leader.

Bavaria under Stoiber has, however, achieved the highest employment rates in the country and in the recent world-wide ‘PISA study’ education tests in which the rest of Germany performed dismally, Bavaria also came out on top. These areas are seen as the chief failures of the red-green coalition and Edmund Stoiber has succeeded well in repeatedly capitalising on them, calling education and unemployment the two greatest “catastrophes” to hit Germany under the reign of red-green.

Whether voters are inspired by Schroder’s leadership on the Iraq issue and his promise Germany will not become militarily involved, or decide to risk under Stoiber the possibilty of participation in a war sanctioned by the UN in exchange for his promise of economic and market reform, it will be a test of the strong and pervading pacifism and anti-militarism that has grown and taken root in almost all levels of German society since WWII.

“Germany will not take part in a war under my leadership,” said Schroder to the estimated 68% of the voting population who watched the last Chancellor-candidate TV-debate. The question is whether he can maintain such conviction beyond a possible victory on September 22.

Feedback direct to the insightful Emma O’Brien at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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