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Germany: New Chancellor Takes Pragmatic Approach

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 28 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Gerhard Schroeder, the next Chancellor of Germany, has moved during his career from an ardent left-winger to a close friend of businessmen and industrialists.

The 54-year-old Schroeder first made his name in the 1970's as the leader of the Jusos, the youth group of the Social Democratic party. They were radical, anti-American and against the use of nuclear power.

But as he grew older, Schroeder in his own words grew "more pragmatic". He grew to admire the United States and, as premier of the province of Lower Saxony, developed contacts with big business. At one time he was a member of the board of the Volkswagen car company, one of the biggest employers in Lower Saxony.

As premier, Schroeder came into close contact with many of the German and international businessmen attending the annual Hannover trade fair. Some traditional left-wingers in the Social Democratic party mocked him as the "comrade of the bosses".

But Schroeder's allies say that at the same time he continued to build a base among students, workers and the less well-off. He frequently went to student political gatherings dressed in casual clothes and was willing to engage in spirited arguments.

A fellow-politician said of him: "he is amazingly good on his feet, never uses tests or notes if he can avoid it. If he senses that what he is saying is not going over with the crowd, he can change gears within seconds and take another approach."

Schroeder's father was killed in the German army's retreat from Russia when Schroeder was only three days old. His mother worked as a cleaning woman in the desperate days at the end of the war. He left school at 14 but later went to night school to qualify to study law at Goettingen University.

Until now he has lived in a moderate apartment in Hannover, the capital of Lower Saxony. He has been married four times. His third marriage, to a woman who was very politically active, lasted 12 years. When it broke up, about two years ago, his wife accused him of drifting away from the socialist principles of his youth. She called him an "opportunist."

Schroeder later married the woman who was the cause of the break-up, the Bavarian journalist Doris Koepf, who met him while she was working for a weekly news-magazine.

In his campaign for Chancellor he persistently argued that what Germany needs to get out of its present state of economic stagnation and to overcome unemployment running at 10 per cent nation-wide is a so-called "middle way".

Schroeder has described it as "political plan which embraces both business and social responsibility." At another time he said "we must create a social consensus in the battle against mass unemployment. It has to be anchored in the middle."

German commentators said today that Schroeder will need all his skills if he hopes to deliver on his promises to modernize German industry and create jobs for the more than four million unemployed, particularly in the five east German provinces where the crisis is at its worst.

Business leaders fear that he may not have the political strength to force through the necessary restructuring of German industry and modify some of the benefits now taken for granted by German workers. The left wing of the party remains strong and many expect it to resist reform. Germany is saddled with some of the world's highest labor costs which have sapped the country's ability to compete in the global economy. Thousands of German jobs have gone abroad as German companies have established plants in countries where labor costs are cheaper.

The head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Hans-Peter Stihl, says many Germans are still unwilling to face the bitter prescriptions which are needed to resolve these problems. "We shall have to see whether Schroeder has the strength to force through reform, first of all in his own party," he said.

In a television interview today, Schroeder acknowledged that the path to labor reform and economic restructuring will not be easy. But he said he believed the current huge unemployment had made most Germans recognize that change had to come if the country was to remain competitive and prosperous.