October 05, 2005

IR - Current Events


Chancellor Schröder Flinches

The standoff between German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and would-be chancellor Angela Merkel continues. But on Monday, Schröder indicated he may be backing away from his insistence on the chancellery. Even the spin doctors are getting dizzy.

 It was just a couple of brief comments, but it was enough to land Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on German front pages for what could end up being one of the last times in his political career. "It's not about me personally," he told the press on Monday before a Social Democrat Party leadership meeting. "Rather, it's about my party's claim to leadership," Schröder said. "And that is something about which only the party leadership can decide.... I don't want to stand in the way of the continuation of the reform process I started or of the creation of a stable government in Germany."

Translation: Chancellor Schröder, who for the two weeks since the Sept. 18 general elections has been insisting that he should remain the country's leader, is changing his tune. Should he be the remaining hurdle to the SPD forming a governing coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), then he would be willing to step aside should his party ask him to. In other words, Schröder has just paid his next installment on his way to retirement.

That, at least, is the way Germany's press chose to interpret Schröder's remarks on Monday. It didn't take long for SPD party chief Franz Müntefering to try and reverse the spin. He warned Merkel on Monday evening not to draw the wrong conclusions from Schröder's comments. "That would be a big misunderstanding and I can only warn (the Merkel camp) to see his comments in that light," Müntefering said. "We are entering the (coalition) negotiations with Gerhard Schröder as the candidate for the highest office in the government."

A long, slow retreat

Despite Müntefering's rebuttal, however, Schröder's comments are part of what has become a slow -- but constant -- process of retreat. On election night, the SPD's surprising results (34.3 percent of the vote despite pre-election polls indicating they would be lucky to break 30 percent) filled Schröder with confidence. Even though Merkel's CDU -- combined with its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) -- received 35.2 percent of the vote, Schröder claimed that he should be the one to form the next government and that German voters clearly wanted him to remain chancellor.
While seemingly absurd, Schröder's claim wasn't out of the realm of possibility. Nowhere in German law is it written that the chancellor must come from the party with the most votes -- although it is a tradition that has anchored itself deep into Germany's political consciousness. And Merkel's party was in a shambles. Polls had predicted the CDU/CSU winning over 40 percent of the vote. Many interpreted the disappointing final result as a rejection of Merkel's coolly rational approach to tax and social reform.

And Schröder gambled that Merkel's party -- which never gave the impression it was 100 percent behind its candidate during the campaign -- would collapse into bickering and finger pointing as a result of her election disaster.

But that never happened. Schröder's strutting about like a peacock on national, election-night television united his political opponents behind Merkel. In doing so, he also goaded them, wittingly or not, to make Schröder's elimination their main goal. In the two weeks since, Schröder's insistence on the chancellery has become more and more difficult to sustain and he and his party may now be looking for a dignified exit strategy.

Schröder the party man

Already, Müntefering has indicated that the party may be willing to move ahead without Schröder if the need arises. And now, Schröder could be positioning himself for posterity -- to go down in history as a man who ultimately sacrificed himself for the good of his party. By insinuating himself into the coalition negotiations, Schröder's very presence could very well leverage an extra cabinet post or two for his party.

Which may also explain why Schröder is only very gradually distancing himself from his chancellery claims.
In the poker game of power, Monday's comments could be understood as call rather than a raise or a fold. It has become clear that Schröder has weak cards, but it is just as clear that he knows his opponents likewise don't have a fistful of aces.

Unfortunately for Schröder, time is not on his side. The longer the face off between him and Merkel continues, the more ridiculous his position looks -- particularly following the election results in Dresden on Sunday (delayed two weeks because of the sudden death of a candidate just before the Sept. 18 vote) in which the CDU candidate soundly defeated his SPD opponent.

Still, the final move of withdrawing from the power struggle will likely only come when Merkel offers his party a large carrot. Only then can Schröder retire as the loyal SPD party member he would like his biographers to write about. And only then will Schröder have the chance to save face.


Post a Comment

<< Home