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Germany

Schröder Faces Potential Setbacks in Elections

Gerhard Schröder will receive a critical assessment of his work at home when German voters head to the polls in two states on Feb. 2.

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German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder looks ahead to state votes

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had a grin on his face this week as he emerged from a two-day strategy session that his Social Democratic Party held in the state capital of Hesse.

"The spirit of Wiesbaden was a good spirit," Schröder said Tuesday.

But as he looks at the weeks ahead -- and the potential pitfalls they pose -- the spirit of Wiesbaden may prove to be a fleeting mental high amid a mass of political lows.

The date is already set for two potential setbacks that could descend on Schröder, who has already seen his poll ratings plummet since he was re-elected Sept. 22. The date is Feb. 2, when voters in the state of Hesse and Schröder's home turf of Lower Saxony go to the polls to elect new parliaments.

On Wednesday, Schröder learned just how serious the challenge is for his Social Democrats. In Lower Saxony, the home of the automaker Volkswagen, a poll showed that the Christian Democrats would receive 46 percent of the vote compared with 36 percent for Schröder's Social Democrats. In Hesse, home of Frankfurt, the financial capital of the country, the picture was much the same. The survey, conducted for the German newsmagazine Stern, showed that the Christian Democrats would receive 47 percent of the vote compared with 32 percent for the Social Democrats.

A two-prong strategy

In the state elections, Schröder's party has two different goals. In Lower Saxony, the Social Democrats are trying to defend their absolute majority, a feat that Schröder pulled off in 1998 on his way to capturing the German chancellorship later that year. In Hesse, they are trying to return to power after being driven from office by the Christian Democrats and the small, pro-business party the Free Democrats in 1999.

Sigmar Gabriel

Sigmar Gabriel

In the chancellor's home state, the task of defending the majority has been handed to Sigmar Gabriel (photo), Lower Saxony's premier. To open his effort, Gabriel used a piece of campaign strategy that has long proven to be productive for Schröder. The Lower Saxony premier served as the master of ceremonies at a benefit concert on Sunday in the state capital of Hannover at which he rubbed elbows with such prominent Germans as Klaus Meine, a member of the rock group The Scorpions. The point of the gala, Gabriel said, was to show that "we are people who have hearts beating in our breasts and who will take care of other people."

Gabriel calls for tax cut

While Schröder may applaud such voter-drawing tactics, he is unlikely to be pleased with other efforts Gabriel has used to gain name recognition among Lower Saxony's voters. Just before the national party's strategy session began Monday in Wiesbaden, Gabriel suggested in an interview with Stern magazine that Schröder should rethink his plan to delay a tax reform package until 2004 as a way to free up desperately needed funds to repair the billions of euros in damage that massive flooding caused in eastern Germany during the summer.

In hopes of giving a transfusion of cash to the anemic German economy, Gabriel said in the interview: "In March, we should perform an honest accounting of the costs of the flood catastrophe. If it actually costs less than we thought -- something that I assume is true -- we should push forward the delayed tax reform from 2004 to July 1," he said.

In Wiesbaden, Schröder said he had no such change in mind. "There will be nothing left over. So, we are sticking to our original schedule," the chancellor said.

Opposition stresses unemployment, immigration problems

Christian Wulff

Christian Wulff

Gabriel's primary rival is the Christian Democrat Christian Wulff (photo), who lost two state races to Schröder in the 1990s. As a potentially winning strategy this time, Wulff has cast an eye on Germany's unemployment rate of 10.1 percent, and stressed that his campaign will focus on the slumping economy. And that also means launching a discussion about immigration, a subject, he said, that has an effect on jobs.

"Those who vote for the Christian Democrats know that it is a question of limiting immigration," Wulff said recently in an interview with the magazine Super Illu.

Division in Hesse

Gerhard Boekel

Gerhard Bökel

In Hesse, Schröder also has run into a similar difference of opinion with the Social Democrats' standard bearer, Gerhard Bökel (photo), on a very different subject -- the potential U.S.-led war against Iraq.

The conflict arose in the aftermath of Schröder's re-election campaign, in which he repeatedly assured German voters that the country would not fight in such a war. Since then, Germany has become a member of the United Nations' Security Council and faces the possibility of having to approve or reject a war.

Bökel, suspecting that Schröder could drift from the stand he took during the summer, said in a recent interview with the wire service dpa: "When the German government clearly says after a fundamental review that it would not send German troops to Iraq, then it may not raise its hand in an international organization for a military operation by other countries."

Bökel's main opponent, Premier Roland Koch of the Christian Democrats, plans to keep such international issues from his political agenda in the campaign that leads up to the Feb. 2 election in the central German state.

To Koch, the election is about his government's accomplishments during the past four years. "The majority of citizens thinks we have done a decent job," Koch said on Jan. 2. As a result, the opposition parties of Social Democrats and Alliance 90/The Greens will not find a statewide issue that they can use to push out the governing coalition, Koch said.

One of Koch's concerns in the days leading to the election is the diminishing drawing power of his coalition partner, the Free Democrats. During the 1999 election, the party gained just 5.1 percent of the vote, barely enough to qualify for the state parliament under Germany's election laws.

And Koch has good reason for worry. The Free Democrats have been torn apart on the national level by an intra-party feud over former North Rhine-Westphalia state party leader Jürgen Möllemann and his criticism about one of the country's leading Jewish citizens.

Roland Koch Wahlplakat

Roland Koch as "RoKo and his dog."

At the same time, Koch has been doing some thinking about his own campaign. Unlike the Social Democrat Gabriel and his star-studded campaign supporters, Koch has decided on another approach. To win over young voters, he is appearing as a comic character in campaign advertising (illustration).

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