Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has long been one of Germany's most popular politicians. But a scandal involving the abuse of tourist visas has dented his reputation and is threatening to unravel his political future.
Joschka Fischer's popularity has suffered recently
Last weekend, Fischer gave a speech that was likely one of the most difficult of his lengthy political career. In an address to members of his Greens party at a regional congress, he had to admit he had made mistakes in handling a widening affair in which foreign criminals made use of relaxed visa requirements – approved by Fischer – to smuggle people into Germany.
While he rejected demands by the conservative opposition to resign, the fact that Fischer felt compelled to devote his speech to the visa scandal shows just how much the matter has the experienced political operator on the defensive.
"Fischer certainly underestimated the situation," Dr. Jürgen Falter, director of the domestic politics program at the University of Mainz, told DW-WORLD. "At the moment it doesn't look like it will push him from office, but we'll have to wait and see if more serious revelations come to light."
Opposition politicians claim thousands of illegal immigrants – including many from Ukraine and China – were able to enter Germany between 2000 and 2003 after tourist visa criteria were relaxed. They say that led to an increase in organized crime, drugs and prostitution on Fischer's watch.
Admirers and enemies
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer looks on during the Greens party congress in Rostock, eastern Germany, on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2001.
Known as someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly, Fischer has as many enemies as he does admirers in parliament, the press, and even in his own party. Over the years, he has developed a reputation as being aloof and arrogant to journalists and his colleagues. Perhaps worse, he has the nasty habit of unnecessarily humiliating those working for him at the Foreign Ministry. It appears as if Fischer is now reaping what he's sown as those who feel slighted by the minister look for some payback.
"He always thought he was almost invulnerable and could survive anything, which was the case up till now," Fischer's biographer Bernd Ulrich said in a recent radio interview with Deutschlandfunk. "That's why he's approached this matter with a certain amount of arrogance."
Yet despite his prickly public persona, Fischer has consistently ranked as one of Germany's most popular politicians. Born in 1948 as the humble son of butcher in Stuttgart, Fischer has one of the most unconventional backgrounds of the country's political elite. Having left school in 10th grade, he made a living in the 1970s as a taxi driver before helping set up the Greens and leading the upstart party into parliament in the 1980s.
Fischer said he recognized himself on this picture of being beaten by the police in 1968. Other photos showed Fischer beating a police officer.
While he lived in Frankfurt, he also became involved in the leftwing student protests of 1968. During that turbulent time he was involved in violent street fighting with the police. Pictures of him made public in 2001 in a black motorcycle helmet kicking a police officer during a protest led conservatives to call for his head.
Authentic and quirky
But German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder stuck by him back then and the public chalked up the affair as a youthful indiscretion on Fischer's part. And for many Germans, it was simply more proof of his "authenticity" that has made him both the Greens' elder statesman and a quirky public figure that could do little wrong.
"He has a personality bonus," explained Richard Hilmer from the public polling organization Infratest/Dimap. "He's considered a different kind of politician. His moving background is considered convincing and authentic."
But the visa affair has battered Fischer's reputation in the eyes of many. For the first time in three years, Fischer last week lost his status as Germany's most popular politician in a regular poll by public broadcaster ZDF.
"He's smacked quite a few people around and that has come back to haunt him. There appears to be quite a bit of schadenfreude over his predicament," Dr. Falter said, adding he expected Fischer to survive the current scandal largely intact. "If he makes it through this he'll be know as the Teflon minister. Nothing will stick to him."
Joschka and Gerd.
As in 2001, Schröder has once again demonstratively backed his foreign minister, saying there was no question that Fischer will stay in office. The chancellor has also expressed his desire to stand for reelection in 2006 with Fischer at his side.
Fischer biographer Ulrich even said the governing center-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens could possible survive with another chancellor than Schröder, but that the foreign minister was indispensable.
"He's too important for the stability of the coalition," he said, adding that because of the visa affair Fischer had also become a liability. "He won't fall but he'll definitely slide a bit. And when he sinks, he'll pull the red-green coalition down a bit further."