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Germany

No Respite in Sight for German Chancellor

There's not much to celebrate as Gerhard Schröder completes 100 days in office this week. Plummeting popularity and grim economic news have battered his image and overshadowed the few high points of his tenure.

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Cause for celebration back then -- German Chancellor Schröder after his election win last September

As German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder heads towards the 100-day mark in office on Wednesday, his worsening domestic woes appear to sit uneasily with growing recognition of his international role as an unflinching opponent of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

With unemployment hovering around 4.5 million, support for the Social Democrats (SPD) at a historic low of 25 percent and a possible crushing defeat in crucial upcoming regional elections, Schröder‘s problems at home show no signs of easing.

Chancellor under fire for reneging on promises

The problems started soon after his re-election last September. Just a few days into office, a damaging series of revelations on the dramatically poor state of the German economy sparked rumors and accusations that the government coalition had deliberately misinformed the public.

To make matters worse, the government’s proposals to stave off a worsening of the economic situation -- which included a hike in taxes -- led to a huge public outcry as people perceived the chancellor to be backtracking on his electoral promises.

The result was a huge loss of confidence in Schröder and his party, a fact that was reflected in plummeting ratings in opinion polls and angry editorials in the media.

While Schröder was in the second spot last September in popularity ratings conducted by infratest-dimap -- close behind Germany's most popular politician Joschka Fischer -- in January, the chancellor's personal rating had slipped to sixth spot. Politicians such as Economics and Labor Minister Wolfgang Clement and Environmental Minister Jürgen Trittin of the Green Party overtook the chancellor in popularity.

Half-hearted reforms?

According to Professor Peter Lösche at the Göttingen University, a large part of the current problems facing the SPD-Green coalition are of their own making. "The Red-Greens went completely unprepared into negotiations to deal with the country’s problems. Rather than think deeply about a solution, they just attempted to deal with it with a patchwork of reforms, there was just no evidence of a single clearly thought out concept," he told DW-WORLD.

In recent months, Schröder’s party has come up with a slew of labor market reforms and teams of experts aimed at making the labor market more flexible and efficient. A strategy paper leaked by the chancellor’s office has also called for wide-ranging and fundamental reforms in Germany’s welfare system, particularly health and pensions.

In a sign that he was serious about effecting a structural change in society, Schröder said in a New Year’s Eve address to the nation: "We will only be able to keep up our standard of living, our welfare system, our good schools, roads and hospitals, all of which are the envy of so many people abroad, if we gather up the courage, together, to accept fundamental change."

"Everything must change so that everything can remain the same," he said a few days earlier. "We must alter our mentality."

Bleak economy undermines Schröder's efforts

But despite his apparent will to change things, most of his proposals have been mired in heated debates both within the SPD and the opposition. Though many have been welcomed by business, Germany’s strong labor unions, which have traditionally been allies of the Social Democratic Party, are aggrieved.

Lösche believes that some of the reform proposals such as part-time work and the creation of new "temp" agencies as suggested by the Hartz commission are "generally correct." "But the whole thing has failed to lead to a plausible, strategic concept."

Schröder’s attempts at reform have been further undermined by continuing bad news on the economic front.

Last year the German economy is estimated to have slowed to a nine-year low of 0.2 percent and the prognosis for this year is not expected to be any better. Unemployment which hit a record 4.2 million last month is expected to continue rising. Consumer confidence has been at its lowest point since 1994 and the DAX, Germany’s leading stock-exchange index, dropped by 44 percent last year.

Public-sector workers threatened to launch their first nationwide strike in a decade and even exports – the strongest pillar of Germany’s economy – are beginning to sputter by the euro’s rise in value and a possible war in Iraq. Last week Germany was also issued a official warning by the EU commission for violating the stability and growth pact and failing to rein in its budget deficit.

Schröder's love-affair with the media over

Schröder’s cabinet has also been rocked in recent months by a string of embarrassing bunglings and contradictory statements by ministers on policy issues, notably on the delivery of Patriot missiles to Israel. Lösche says that "these contradictory noises from the government" have further eroded the government’s reputation.

Schröder himself has lost his image as a "media-savvy" chancellor after his angry reactions to the press digging into his private life and speculating about his relationship with his wife. In the latest instance, Schröder filed a lawsuit against a British paper for printing rumors about his alleged affair with a German television presenter.

Schröder finds resonance with anti-war stance

But even as the chancellor faces one domestic fiasco after the other, he has been playing an influential role on the world stage in recent weeks.

Last year, Schröder antagonized Washington with his anti-war stance and refusal to cooperate in a war against Iraq. At the time, the chancellor was accused of using Iraq as an election ploy to woo pacifist voters and branded an "opportunist."

But in recent weeks, opinion both within Germany and in some European countries has swung sharply in favor of what is now perceived as Germany’s bold anti-war stance in the face of strident American pressure to attack Iraq.

Schröder has also been credited with improving often frosty ties to France. At a historic celebration to commemorate 40 years of the Franco-German Elysée treaty last week, Schröder and French President Chirac signed a number of agreements aimed at intensifying cooperation.

In a surprising move, Germany also appeard to get France to reconsider its support for a U.S.-led war against Iraq, at least if public statements are to be believed.

Germany, which temporarily takes over the U.N. Security Council in February, has made it clear that it will vote against any U.N. resolution calling for military action against Iraq.

"There's hardly any doubt at the moment that Germany runs the risk of isolating itself internationally with the kind of support it's getting," Lösche said.

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