German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose Social Democratic Party is falling behind in the polls, yesterday kicked off his election campaign earlier than planned in hopes of galvanizing support. Speaking at a rally in his hometown of Hannover, Schroeder detailed his government's economic program but reserved his strongest rhetoric for a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq. The German leader said his country would not support such a war, either financially or militarily.
Munich, 6 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With German national elections less than two months away -- 22 September 22 -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sought to reverse his party's flagging popularity by kicking off his campaign three weeks early and with fiery assurances that Germany would not support a war in Iraq.
Schroeder, whose Social Democrats (SPD) are trailing by 5-7 percent in the polls behind the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), came out strong in a campaign launch yesterday in his hometown of Hannover. Flashing the victory sign, Schroeder urged Germans to roll up their sleeves and overcome the country's economic slump.
But Schroeder drew the loudest applause when he also made clear an SPD government would resist any involvement in a U.S. war to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a venture he criticized as "risky adventurism." "Pressure on [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein? Yes! We must be able to send the international observers into the country but I can only warn of playing games with war and military intervention. We will not be part of it, ladies and gentlemen!" Schroeder said.
The German chancellor also described Germany as a "self-confident" country and said "the time for checkbook diplomacy is over forever." This was a reference to the 1991 Gulf War, when former Chancellor Helmut Kohl contributed some 20 billion Deutsche marks ($13.15 billion) to the United States but had no say in how the campaign was conducted.
Recent polls indicate that a majority of Germans oppose a war in Iraq and believe the international community should instead concentrate on bringing peace to the Middle East. Schroeder, in his strong opposition to the Iraq campaign, may be looking to shore up support and tip the scales back in the SPD's favor.
Despite the fact that the SPD appears to be trailing the CDU, Schroeder personally remains more popular than his challenger, Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber, whom many see as colorless and uninspiring.
Stoiber, for his part, today criticized Schroeder for his remarks on Iraq, saying there was no reason to made decisions regarding what, for the time being, is a hypothetical question. Stoiber's foreign-policy adviser, Wolfgang Schaeuble, refused to rule out a German role in a war with Iraq.
But SPD Secretary-General Franz Munterfering, who yesterday reiterated that Germany would play no part in a U.S. military campaign against Saddam Hussein, said his party intends to take advantage of Schroeder's personal popularity.
Munterfering, the strategist behind the SPD's 1998 campaign, today described the situation as "still fluid." He added there was ample time to convince the undecided voters who make up as much as 30 percent of Germany's electorate that the SPD offers better policies for workers, women, and the socially disadvantaged.
Dieter Roth, who leads a leading electoral research group, Forschungs Gruppe Wahlen, said many uncertain voters may not decide on a candidate until the final days of the campaign, adding: "Whatever the party, the main issue is unemployment. Others include crime, the cost of living, and the cost of health care. All the parties have much the same approach on all these questions. None has a really individual approach."
The CDU, which has been campaigning for more than a month, is focusing largely on the issue of unemployment, which has soared to more than 4 million despite pledges by Schroeder in his successful 1998 campaign to bring it under 3.5 million.
In Hannover yesterday, Schroeder said the SPD had accomplished much in the past four years but needed a new mandate to see the job through. "We've managed a lot, but we have not achieved all we set out to do. Therefore, we need a new mandate to follow this German road to the end," Schroeder said.
Schroeder said new policies are needed in health and education, and warned a victory by the conservative opposition would mean tax cuts and a scaling back of the social reforms and job-protection standards introduced during his term as chancellor.
Commentators said Schroeder's hometown remarks yesterday were well-received, but said it is unclear whether he can continue to generate similar enthusiasm elsewhere.
Campaign managers for Stoiber, meanwhile, have attempted to steer the CDU candidate from any polarized issues that may drive away voters. But analysts say Germans may still be wondering if Stoiber -- known in the past as a fiery speaker and a stalwart opponent of immigration and liberal social reforms such as homosexual marriage -- will return to his heated rhetoric if he wins the election on 22 September.