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Germany

Desperately Seeking Schröder

The German public wants strong leadership in these awkward times for the country. Yet Chancellor Gerhard Schröder seems paralyzed by inertia, unable to act upon the most pressing problems facing his government.

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Chancellor Schröder has every right to look worried as he contemplates his future

These are troubling times for Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, as he struggles to reassert his authority and personality on his Social Democratic party (SPD), his government and the electorate.

Throw in the opposition and you have four formidable political institutions that seem to have lost all respect for the once mighty, media-savvy chancellor.

With Germany facing recession and the potential pitfall of a war on Iraq, the country is crying out for a strong leader more than ever. However, Schröder seems a shadow of his former self. Gone are the days when his political instinct took over and steamrollered his political friends and foes alike.

Worrying signs from Lower Saxony

Niedersachsens Ministerpräsident Sigmar Gabriel vor der SPD-Präsidiumssitzung

Sigmar Gabriel, Lower Saxony's state premier, may soon have to tell reporters why he lost his state's election.

Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democratic premier of Lower Saxony, which goes to the polls on February 2, said over the weekend that the federal government's policies were not helping his campaign.

"At the moment we are battling a strong headwind, " he said. "Of course people in Lower Saxony are also unsettled. The government has taken on too much. It would have been better to take one step at a time."

A poll conducted last week showed the SPD in Lower Saxony falling to 34 percent from 47.9 percent, while the opposition conservatives rose to 43 percent from 35.9 percent.

Schröder's disappearance

Since he barely scraped back to power just over two months ago, Schröder has seen his support and that of this party, the Social Democrats (SPD), plummet to record post-war lows. A damaging series of revelations on the dramatically poor state of the German economy just after the election has sparked rumours and accusations that the government coalition of Schröder's Social Democrats and the Greens deliberately misinformed the public.

Ironically enough, the sentiment in Germany seems to be that the public is prepared to face painful reforms of the labor market and the social welfare system in order to pull Germany out of this quagmire. What the public needs, however, is a tough-talking, honest chancellor telling them that sacrifices are required.

As Sigmar Gabriel put it: Schröder "must show strong leadership again, because that is precisely why people elected him."

The Gerhard Schröder of two or three years ago would have been precisely that figure, Now, he is seen as procrastinating and keeping a low profile. Some observers note that Schröder has acted similarly in the past, waiting for the opportune moment to move out of the background and take charge again.

Calls for a "blood, sweat and tears" speech

However, even Schröder's closest political allies are voicing doubts that the chancellor will use that sort of chance again. Heide Simonis, the outspoken SPD premier of Schleswig-Holstein, on Monday called on the chancellor to deliver a "blood, sweat and tears" to the nation. "There is only one thing left to do: Tell the people what is wrong, what the situation is and what we are going to do about it," she said.

She criticized the government for failing to present the public with a coherent, viable course of action for the legislative period.

Calls to resign

The opposition has called upon Schröder and Finance Minister Hans Eichel to resign for misleading voters about the state of public finances. Sinking tax revenues and a budget deficit climbing above the 3 percent euro-zone threshold of gross domestic product have earned Berlin a stinging rebuke from the EU Commission.

Edmund Stoiber, the conservative chancellor candidate who narrowly lost to Schröder, is confident voters will punish the government in the Hesse and Lower Saxony state elections in February.

"The head of government has become a laughable number one in the hit parade as an electoral fraudster and hiker of taxes," he said.

Reforms watered down

Peter Hartz, Vorsitzender Hartz-Kommission

Peter Hartz, chairman of the commission to reform the labor market, has fiercely criticized the government's backtracking over his proposals.

And there are harsh words too from those whose expertise was called upon to come up with proposals aimed at kickstarting Germany's economy.

Peter Hartz, for example, the Volkswagen manager whose labor reform commission focused on halving unemployment, has vehemently attacked the government for backtracking and caving in to union demands.

"The way the plans look now, it will certainly not be possible to create jobs for two million people, " he told the news magazine Der Spiegel. "Important parts of our concept are missing from the legislation," he said.

How and whether Schröder will bounce back is anyone's guess. A political talk-show guest recently likened him to a surfer waiting for that special wave.

"Either he rides that wave or it pulls him under," the pundit said.

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