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German elections Sunday, 27 September, 1998, 23:10 GMT 00:10 UK
Schr¿der grabs the centre ground
In 1982, a young, very drunk German MP stood outside Chancellor Helmut Kohl's official residence, shook the steel gates and shouted "Let me in!" Sixteen years later, that same politician, Gerhard Schröder, appears to have won his chance to go in.

Germany is ripe for change. It is no longer the country of Oktoberfest and steel, but the Berlin Love Parade and software. With more than 4 million unemployed and investment flooding out of the country, it is not hard to see why many would like to see a change at the top.

"The result is a signal that the Kohl era is over," declared Mr Schröder after his re-election as prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony in March.

Bipartisan appeal

The 54-year-old Mr Schröder is a "New Centre" leftist in the mould of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President Bill Clinton. He stands out in the German political landscape as the one politician of the Left whose policies also appeal to the Right.

"He is trying to open up new ways for two important things: employment and entrepreneurship," said Bela Anda, editor of the newspaper Bild-Zeitung and Mr Schröder's biographer. "The things he will have to do could be quite harsh but no one is in a better position to deliver this bitter pill than he is."

Mr Schröder is the latest in an increasingly long line of politicians to follow the New Left's "third way". Three years ago Germany, France, Italy and Britain were ruled by conservative or rightist governments. Today, all have moved to the Centre-Left.

Having it his way

But is Mr Schröder really comparable to Mr Blair and President Clinton?

Like them, Mr Schröder is a popular, reform-minded, left-wing politician with close ties to business. Like them, he stresses that a competitive industry that creates jobs offers a better future than a government that extends social welfare benefits.

Gerhard Schr¿der
Germany's Tony Blair?
But unlike them, Mr Schröder is wary of any "third way" that would jeopardise the social welfare system that conservative, liberal and left-leaning German voters alike consider their due.

Mr Schröder himself comes from an impoverished background, the son of a widowed cleaning lady. In speeches along the campaign trail, Mr Schröder tells stories about how reducing benefits would hurt widows like his own mother.

And though he encourages comparisons between himself and Tony Blair, if elected many say the brash, cigar-smoking Mr Schröder is unlikely to be able to repeat Mr Blair's successful transformation of the Labour party.

"He is a Blairite in that he understands presentational efforts. They have a war room. They have a card with vague pledges just like New Labour but he will have more problems with turning the party into a Blairite party because of the federal structure of the SPD," said Simon Green, a lecturer in European Studies at the University of Portsmouth.

Party will be difficult to control

This is because the German Länder (state) parties are notoriously autonomous. The party system creates regional barons who rule with a firm hand and are unlikely to want to cede power.

The forces of the past remain strong and, even as Chancellor, Mr Schröder could find himself spending much of his time fighting his own party.

The result, critics say, is a host of mixed messages and undeliverable promises. Mr Schröder, they add, is not New Left but a classic case of a politician wanting to be all things to all people.

In a recent interview, Mr Schröder defended his policies as pure pragmatism.

"I am neither right nor left. I am a human being.

"The old ideologies have been overtaken by the forces of history," he said. "I'm only interested in what works on the ground."

BBC News
Mr Schr¿der talks to the BBC after his election victory
BBC News
Caroline Wyatt reports on Gerhard Schr¿der's path to to the top
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