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Opinion: Schröder Caught in the Middle

With less than a month left until Germans go to the polls, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder appears to be in a tight spot. Maybe his decision to have an early election wasn't such a great idea, says DW-WORLD's Marc Young.

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Schröder's SPD is still trailing the conservatives in opinion polls

If you're looking for an early political obituary to go with Germany's early election, you're in the wrong place. Although things look grim for him at the moment, I won't be tolling the bells for Gerhard Schröder just yet. He's pulled off seemingly impossible comebacks before and he might do so again.

That said, it's hard these days not to get a feeling of inevitability about the impending end to Schröder's seven-year tenure. Flip open a paper or turn on the television in Germany and you're bombarded with retrospectives over the legacy of his so-called "red-green" coalition government. And Schröder's relaxed presence on the campaign trail is often chalked up to his actually being relieved about soon being relieved of his responsibilities in Berlin. Perhaps.

Indeed, it does not look good for Gerd: While his Social Democrats (SPD) are stuck at 30 percent in opinion polls, the Christian Democrats (CDU) have stabilized over 40 percent and the new socialist outfit, the Left Party, continues to pull in nearly 10 percent nationally.

Surprising his opponents

I imagine this isn't how the chancellor expected the campaign to play out after he decided in May to bring forward the next general election by a year. September probably seemed far away back then. By springing the snap poll after the state election debacle in SPD-stronghold North Rhine-Westphalia, Schröder had masterly wrong-footed his opponents both inside and outside his own party.

CDU: Merkel und Stoiber, Combo

Angela Merkel, right, and Bavarian premier Chef Edmund Stoiber.

The conservative opposition was able to throw together a response, but the rough edges have shown. Not only has CDU chancellor candidate Angela Merkel seemed unsteady on the campaign trail, several of her colleagues have been extremely adept at insulting eastern German voters. Still, much to the chagrin of the SPD, all the gaffes haven't particularly dented the conservatives' standing in opinion polls.

And the surprising strength of the Left Party -- formed from the successor to East Germany's communist party and disgruntled western Social Democrats -- must be particularly gutting for Schröder. Few -- myself included -- expected such a diverse grouping of old-school eastern socialists and cranky western trade unionists to be able to kit together a pan-German leftist party with such speed.

Whether its two leading protagonists, Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine, can hold the Left Party together after the election -- which I doubt -- is irrelevant for Schröder. The damage will be done as they siphon off just enough support to stymie the SPD's chances of remaining the largest party in parliament.

Better to wait?

Hamburger Hafen

Hamburg habor

German frustration with Schröder's government is largely based on its inability to bring down the country's chronic unemployment. The economy, once again, stagnated in the second quarter. However, according to the latest edition of The Economist, Germany might finally be on the verge of a substantial recovery. Were that true, Schröder might have been in a much better position to win re-election in the fall of 2006.

With that in mind, I'd probably say calling the early election wasn't such a great idea. Voters might have been more willing to accept Schröder's welfare cuts and labor market reforms. But hindsight, of course, is a luxury not afforded to politicians when they make tough choices.

In May, Schröder clearly decided the only way to get a mandate for his agenda of unpopular economic reform was to go to voters. Victory at the polls would both silence his internal party critics and encourage the conservative opposition -- which controls the upper house -- to work with him and not against him.

And that's why I still respect Schröder's bold springtime gamble, even if it ends up costing him his job.

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