Friday, 13 February 1998


New Times, 13 February 1998

Quite the most important elections in Europe during the first half of this year are those on 1 March in the German state of Lower Saxony.

Since 1990, the state premier there has been the populist Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, who is on the right of his party. If he stands as SPD candidate for the federal chancellorship in September's elections for the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, he has a better chance than anyone else in his party of ousting Helmut Kohl and his centre-right coalition government.

But Schröder has said that he will not put his name forward for selection unless on 1 March the SPD vote in Lower Saxony does not fall by more than two percentage points. At present, it looks as if he'll do better than that, actually increasing the SPD's share of the vote – which will almost certainly mean that his main rival for the SPD chancellorship nomination, Oskar Lafontaine, the more left-leaning Saarland state premier and federal party leader, will withdraw and nominate Schröder when the SPD's top brass meet to choose their candidate on 16 March.

If Schröder fails in Lower Saxony, however, the nomination will almost certainly go to Lafontaine, the unsuccessful  SPD candidate for the federal chancellorship in the 1990 post-unification election. Although Lafontaine has maintained a consistently high public profile in recent months with his assaults on the economic and financial policies of the federal government, opinion polls suggest that he is unlikely to beat Kohl.

To up the ante still more, victory for Kohl's Christian Democratic Union in Lower Saxony would wipe out the SPD majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, and bring to an end months of legislative deadlock.

So a lot is at stake on 1 March for both big parties, and both are pulling out all the stops during the campaign. Kohl plans no fewer than eight speaking engagements in support of his party's challenger in Lower Saxony, Christian Wulf, and Schröder and Lafontaine – who started the year wrangling over the date that the SPD would choose its candidate for the chancellorship – are putting on public shows of mutual admiration as often as they can.

Of course, there's plenty that can go wrong for Schröder even if he does well on 1 March. Schröder's enthusiasm for reform of the welfare state and his tough-on-crime stance risk pushing many SPD voters into backing the Greens, and they could well provide a lifeline for the Party of Democratic Socialism, the former East German Communist Party. Schröder's rhetoric might also make it very difficult for the SPD to reach a coalition arrangement with the Greens after the election. This doesn't bother Schröder, who would prefer a coalition with the liberal free Democrats or a "grand coalition" with the CDU, but it worries many in his party, by no means all on the left.

Nevertheless, the prospects for the SPD today are brighter than at any time since German unification, and that can only be good news for the rest of the European centre-left. Under Kohl, Germany has for the last four years resisted all attempts to get the European Union to introduce reflationary measures compensating for the deflationary effects of European economic and monetary union. Largely as a result, German unemployment last month reached the startling total of 5 million.

Schröder is no radical Keynesian, but his populism means that he is at least open to the argument that Europe needs a concerted assault on unemployment. And that is a small but significant step in the right direction.