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Europe

Press Review: Schröder's Bitter Pill

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's decision to call early general elections after his Social Democrats suffered heavy losses in the key state of North Rhine-Westphalia was widely seen by the press as a humiliating defeat.

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Feeling down

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the chancellor has turned to "desperate measures." New elections, the paper said, represent "a gamble on power. The Social Democrats saw the disaster coming, they were ready for it and they tried to weather it. But it was far greater than expected, and the psychological and political repercussions for the red-green coalition government only began to emerge as the results were revealed on the television screens. But as long as there can be an election, there can be hope -- even if it is hope for a miracle."

The daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that "after this tectonic shift, Schröder has little choice but to make a virtue of necessity, if he wants to avoid a crushing defeat in the next Bundestag elections. The box of tricks he's been using until now is more or less empty. The fact that Schröder missed his chance to secure his position against the worst consequences of losing his majority in the Bundesrat with a reform of the federal system has come back to haunt him. If the government now tried renegotiating in order to win back some room to maneuver, it would inevitably be in a worse position than it was in December. Schröder would have to swallow a bitter pill: a change of coalition, resignation, new elections."

Schröder's move after Sunday's devastating loss in Germany's most populous state was "an admission of defeat", said the Financial Times. "The scale of the SPD's defeat reflected popular resentment at Mr Schröder's economic policy -- viewed as far too business-friendly --and his cuts to the country's traditionally generous welfare state. With many in the SPD demanding a shift to the left in a bid to win back core voters, Mr Schröder could face a bruising battle with his grassroots as he draws up the party's election platform. (A general election in four months) could mean the resumption of economic reforms as soon as the autumn -- either by a freshly legitimized Mr Schröder or by a conservative-led government. It would also dispel fears that the nation could be doomed to spend the next 16 months in a paralysing pre-election limbo."

The center-left Guardian noted that calling early elections was not accepted practice in Germany and quoted a Social Democrat, furious at the chancellor's decision, calling it "political suicide." Schröder's chances of winning a third term as chancellor appear bleak, commented the daily. "While it is too early to write him off entirely, Germany appears to be heading for another period of center-right government, and its first ever woman chancellor -- the Christian Democrats' leader, Angela Merkel. Before last night's disaster, Mr Schröder was facing growing pressure to dump some of his controversial reforms to the country's social welfare system. Instead of changing course, he appears to be trying to regain the initiative by going to the polls. "

The center-right Times said a "humbled" Schröder had taken a "panicked decision," which clearly shows how deeply the defeat has hurt the government. Analysts quoted by the paper said the election might pave the way "for a grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in some form of broad cross-party reforming alliance. It will paralyze Germany, the world's third-largest economy, unless Schröder can win a new mandate for his unpopular program to overhaul its stagnant economy and lumbering welfare state. On yesterday’s showing, his chances are slight. His popular mandate is melting by the day and left-wingers within his party are demanding that he perform a U-turn."

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