This Time It's Personal

Conservatives wallop Social Democrats in two important state elections and everybody knows it's all about Gerhard Schröder

A day before state elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony on Sunday, Der Tagesspiegel set the stage in a front-page editorial. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was essentially reelected last September not on the promise that he would make things better, but on the premise that he wouldn't make things worse. But on the domestic front at least, things did get worse. A lot worse, and very quickly, too (see The Scope of the Crisis).

As for foreign policy, it depends on who you ask. Some worry about the on-going rift between Washington and Berlin, but among many Germans there's an almost spunky pride in having landed on George W. Bush's shit list. Sure, there were fears of being internationally isolated for a while there, but after France and Germany sealed the celebration of their 40-year friendship with a joint declaration of opposition to an immediate and groundless attack on Iraq, followed by "me, too"s from Russia and China, those fears dissipated. Only to be replaced days later by anxiety over the state of the European project.

Behind Chirac and Schröder's backs, the Spanish and British prime ministers, José Maria Aznar and Tony Blair, drafted a letter of support for Bush's imminent war, secretly rounded up signatures from six more European countries and then publishing the letter in the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London. The letter flies in the face of public opinion not only in Spain and Britain, but throughout Europe. What's more, it breaches the spirit of Maastricht even as EU leaders discuss a possible future European foreign minister who would speak for the entire continent.

Ultimately, though, while the march to war has dominated the headlines, voters in state elections tend to have more immediate concerns on their minds as they go to the polls. And the long and the short of it is that all Germans are facing greater job insecurity and fewer social benefits even as they'll soon be paying higher taxes.

Little surprise, then, as the numbers came in Sunday evening from Hesse and Lower Saxony. Despite its lack of any discernible alternative program to that of Schröder's Social Democrats (SPD), the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), heading up the conservative opposition, scored big: 48,8 percent in Hesse and around 48 percent in Lower Saxony, while the SPD has brought in only 29,1 and 33.4, respectively. Interestingly, both the Greens (10,1 and 7.6 percent) and the Liberals (around 8 percent in both states) improved on their showings in each of the last elections.

Hesse, Germany's third-richest state, was CDU territory to begin with, but the loss of SPD control over Lower Saxony is a particularly tough blow for Schröder since he governed it as prime minister between 1990 and 1998. Still, voters have been so furious at Schröder that CDU leaders were openly speculating that they might win absolute majorities in both states. As they head into the new week, the only consolation Social Democrats have is that, barely, just barely, it could have been worse.


Günter Grass on looming war.

And, almost as a follow-up to last week's "Elsewhere", the LA Weekly's Harold Meyerson reports on all the "anti-" feelings flying across the Atlantic these days. (David Hudson)