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Challenges for a New Chancellor

Michael J. Ring

After 16 years ruling over Europe's largest economy, Helmut Kohl and his conservative Christian Democratic Union were toppled in federal elections in Germany over the weekend. The German electorate elevated the leftist Social Demo-cratic Party to power, and the nation's next chancellor will be SDP leader Gerhard Schroeder.

The election of Schroeder marks a radical change in the landscape of German politics. The elder Kohl, regarded both domestically and internationally as a grandfatherly figure, is known for quiet, unemotional leadership. Schroeder, fourteen years Kohl's junior, is much more telegenic and colorful. Schroeder's polished image, savvy media skills, and proficiency at public speaking are a substantial departure from those of the bumbling Kohl. Schroeder jokes of his tendency to be married about once a decade: at 54 Schroeder is currently married to his fourth wife. Known for a drunken outburst in 1982, when he violently shook gates of the chancellor's office and shouted, "I want to get in there!" Schroeder has finally received his wish.

Schroeder is too young to remember World War II. He is the first federal leader of Germany's baby boom generation. Schroeder used his relative youth to paint himself as the candidate of Germany's future, as compared to Kohl, the supposed candidate of Germany's past.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in hailing Schroeder's election, said a "new era for Europe" had dawned. Indeed, the leaders of Europe's four most influential nations - Britain's Blair, France's Jospin, Italy's Prodi, and now Germany's Schroeder, all represent left-of-center governments. Conservatism, at least for the present time, has been vanquished in Europe.

The rise to power of these four men marks an exciting new period in European political history. The continent is united by a new philosophy, an acceptance of liberal policy tempered by some lessons of the free market. Blair and Schroeder especially do not espouse traditional socialist policies; instead they seek to advance many of the left's traditional goals through centrist means. Blair has proven in Britain that these policies work; his confident reforms and charismatic leadership have revived the spirit of the United Kingdom.

Before this new era can come to fruition, and Schroeder can emulate the success of Blair, there are several major obstacles which the new German chancellor must overcome. The coming year will be difficult and challenging for the new chancellor, and without major policy victories the era of Schroeder could be very short.

Schroeder first needs to articulate clearly a platform for his party, a set of guiding principles and policy goals that will motivate his government during their first few months in office. The Social Democratic Party won a lot of votes from Germans looking for change. Many in the German electorate felt Kohl's leadership had grown stale and unimaginative, and as such their votes were not signs of confidence in Schroeder, but votes of no confidence in Kohl. The new chancellor must prove to the German people his ideas are fresh and inventive, or his popularity may soon sour.

The Social Democratic Party's victory was not surprising given the state of Germany's economy: nearly one in nine is unemployed, and in the former East Germany that ratio is closer to one in five. Once the economic engine of the European continent, Germany has stagnated in this decade. Kohl, who has presided over this recession, did not have the answers necessary for improving the economy. But as premier of Lower Saxony, Schroeder did little to ameliorate poor economic conditions in that region of Germany. If Schroeder does not stimulate the German economy his fate in the next election will probably be the same as Kohl's in this one.

Schroeder must also deal with the always-dicey scenario of forming a coalition government. The Social Democratic Party will need the votes of the Green Party to sustain a government. Schroeder's majority of 21 seats in the 672-seat Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's parliament, is dangerously slim. There will be no room for backbencher dissent in his government, and a revolt among even small numbers of his coalition could topple the government.

Schroeder's centrist ambitions will be strained by the need for a coalition. While the new chancellor has been trying to improve his party's relationship with Germany's industrial sector, leftist members of the Social Democratic Party and coalition partners will balk at policies they consider too business-friendly. It will be extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, for Schroeder to convince his leftist allies to force reforms among Germany's labor unions. The radicals in the Green Party threaten the stability of Schroder's government; if they advance their platform including the withdrawal of Germany from NATO and the end to nuclear power, Schroeder's government could suffer potentially fatal embarrassments.

While Schroeder may have defeated Kohl in this election, the new chancellor must still live in the shadow of his predecessor. Only Otto von Bismarck was a longer-serving chancellor than Kohl. The outgoing chancellor engineered and facilitated the reunification of Germany, the modern crowning point in the history of that nation. Kohl also was the driving force behind the integration of Europe's economies and the growing power of the European Union. For well over a decade Germans liked his unpretentious style, and heads of governments abroad from all sides of the political spectrum admired and respected Kohl's leadership.

Schroeder, most recently a leader of only regional stature, steps into an immense vacuum left in the absence of Kohl. He will have to distinguish himself quickly from his predecessor or face the probable failure of his government.

If Schroeder can negotiate these challenges, he will gain well-deserved respect and trust for his skilled leadership and the excitement of a new united leftist regime in Europe will be fulfilled. If he fails, however, Schroeder will be reduced to a curiosity in German history, paling in comparison to both his contemporary statesmen such as Tony Blair and his predecessor, Helmut Kohl.