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 Wednesday, 8 January, 2003, 17:54 GMT
Schroeder's winter blues
Gerhard Schroeder
Mr Schroeder knew his second term would not be easy
Re-elected by the skin of his teeth in late 2002, it appears German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will need a little more than his famous charm to pull him through 2003.

Mr Schroeder and Doris
The media has been told not to repeat allegations about marital problems
The government has been rapped by the European Union over its budget deficit, a major public sector strike is looming, unemployment is spiralling, and the prospect of a war against Iraq could jeopardise Mr Schroeder's coalition with the pacifist Greens.

With the popularity of his ruling Social Democrat Party (SPD) plummeting, the conservative opposition is set to win two key state elections early next month, according to the most recent opinion polls.

And on top of that, the chancellor is looking at an embarrassing court wrangle as he scrambles to stop newspapers publishing articles about his alleged marital problems.

Caught in the middle

Mr Schroeder knew after his September re-election - secured thanks to the success of his Green coalition partners - that tricky times lay ahead.

Lacking major policy differences with his Conservative rival, the chancellor had latched onto widespread opposition to a war against Iraq to drum up votes for his party in the run-up to the election.

But the gambit has now left him in a difficult position. Some politicians in Germany, which has just taken up a seat on the United Nations Security Council, warn of isolation if the country's allies decide to back an American-led war against Baghdad while Germany rejects it.

Queues form outside German job centres
Germany is suffering from soaring unemployment
On the other hand, Mr Schroeder risks further alienating public opinion in a strongly pacifist nation, as well as disturbing his Green government allies, if he opts to vote in favour of military action.

The chancellor is also being tugged two ways by the demands of the European Commission - which berated Berlin on Wednesday for overspending - and the German people - deeply unhappy with cuts.

In order to reduce public borrowing, Chancellor Schroeder has already announced a hugely unpopular package of austerity measures and tax hikes.

Shirts have been arriving at Mr Schroeder's office in Berlin - a protest by Germans who say that the chancellor is quite literally taking the shirts off their back with his policies.

Meanwhile some three million nurses, firefighters, bus drivers and other public sector workers are threatening the largest strike in a decade if their demands for a pay increase are not met - a hike the government insists it can ill afford as it struggles to battle its deficit.

And punishment at the polls looms in two states next month. The conservative opposition has a 10% lead in Lower Saxony, seen as an SPD stronghold, while in the central state of Hesse, the margin is even greater.

Personal and political

And he is not just having to defend his politics. Mr Schroeder is also battling to prevent the press reporting on his private life.

Government sources have been passing on warnings to the media of lawsuits if allegations in Britain's Mail on Sunday about relations between Mr Schroeder and his fourth wife Doris are repeated.

Mr Schroeder's lawyers are already due in court at the end of January for a ruling on a challenge by two regional German newspapers, which the chancellor prevented from publishing articles about his sleeping arrangements with Doris.

The papers, Maerkische Oderzeitung and Suedwestpresse, have invoked press freedom.

Doris played a prominent role in last year's general election campaign, featuring next to her husband on posters and sharing her thoughts on a variety of subjects - personal and political - on his website.

But there is only so much private information the German leader, once dubbed the "media chancellor" for his seemingly effortless wit and charm, is now prepared to divulge.

See also:

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