As Germany heads toward early elections this fall, voters will decide whether they want Chancellor Gerhard Schröder or opposition leader Angela Merkel. But DW-WORLD's Marc Young isn't sure if Germans know what they need.
Gerhard Schröder or Angela Merkel: The choice is Germany's
I like Gerd. There, I've said it straight at the beginning of this column. If I had to choose whom I'd rather sit down with at my local Biergarten to share a beer and some conversation, Gerhard Schröder would defeat Angela Merkel by a landslide. And not just because I know he enjoys a decent cold one now and again.
Over the past seven years he's been chancellor, Schröder has grown on me. And I think he's grown into the office. After a rather rocky start in 1998 and with plenty of fits and starts, Schröder has started thinking less like a politician and more like a statesman. That's why I imagine he decided to move the next general election forward by year.
Despite the very good possibility that voters will end his career this fall by turfing out his center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and environmentalist Greens, it appears Schröder realized Germany -- hobbled by high unemployment and weak growth -- cannot afford another year of political paralysis. And that is exactly what the country would have faced following the crushing defeat of the SPD in last week's key state election in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Throwing down the gauntlet
Admittedly, there was plenty of political motivation behind the decision to call an early election -- in many ways Schröder is throwing down the gauntlet to his own party as much as to the opposition.
After suffering a string of defeats in state elections, the left-wingers in the SPD have demanded the chancellor abandon his rather unpopular welfare cuts and labor market reforms that go by the name Agenda 2010. Now he's made clear that the party chooses to leave the path of reform at its own peril and certainly without him at the helm.
It has also caught his opponents on the other side of the aisle off guard and sent them scrambling to throw together a campaign platform in time for an election likely to be held this September.
Things haven't really been going uphill for Germany as of late
Average Germans, by in large, seem to realize their country is in desperate need of an overhaul if it is to overcome its economic woes and be able to compete in the age of globalization. But as the fortunes of the SPD under Schröder's stewardship show, few seem willing to support politicians that take the unpopular yet necessary steps to get things back on track.
Of course, nobody likes to be told they've got to tighten their belt, but there's a rather unpleasant mood prevailing in Germany these days. It smacks of a self-pitying entitlement mentality that even Schröder has addressed.
The country has lately reminded me of the character in any number of catastrophe films that starts to scream how everyone is going to die. What's needed now is a cool-headed protagonist to come over and slap some sense into Germany and tell everyone to snap out of it.
Gerd or Angie?
And that's where we get to the point of this column: Sure, I'd pick Schröder as someone I'd chat with over a beer, but would I vote for him, if I could? While he certainly seems to be aware that tough choices need to be made in order to tackle the myriad problems plaguing Germany, I'm not so sure large sections of his party are.
Many left-wingers in SPD and elsewhere appear to be engaging in a grand case of willing suspension of disbelief to enjoy their own little fictional reality. Some seem totally unaware that Germany has long been living above its means for years. Even before the government's (rather modest) labor market reforms dubbed Hartz IV went into effect last year, a broad coalition of disgruntled trade unionists and old school socialists started to howl hysterically that Schröder was gutting Germany's generous – and utterly untenable – welfare state.
A trade union view of US investors.
Fears of "American-style capitalism" descending upon Germany's precious social market system might be overblown, but that constant pressure from the left has kept Schröder from taking more dramatic steps to reduce the ranks of Germany's unemployed -- currently near 12 percent of the total workforce. And oddly, that failure has buoyed Merkel's Christian Democrats, who most likely will impose more drastic measures to spark economic growth if they get elected.
In effect, Germans don't like what Schröder has done, so they're going to put somebody in office that will give them a double portion of it. Such a disconnect may be illogical, but if it brings to Berlin a government that can shake Germany out of its current stupor, then so be it.
Plus, then Gerd may have enough time to meet me in the Biergarten. The first round is on me.