Prague, 23 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in today's Western press looks at yesterday's German elections, which saw Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's center-left ruling coalition retain power in what is being called the closest national elections in Germany's history. The papers also look at weekend elections in Slovakia and U.S. pressure for regime change in Iraq.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" says: "In a battle between a chancellor few Germans find trustworthy and a challenger few deemed likable, voters yesterday [on 22 September] split the difference."
The paper goes on to say the challenge ahead is clear: First, to "revitalize the moribund German economy and end the political gridlock that has made reform so difficult." Schroeder, who center-left coalition will remain in power, will have another chance to succeed where he failed in his previous term.
Despite a wide range of economic measures meant to salvage the struggling economy, the paper says Schroeder's reforms proved to be "half measures." It adds: "The rising dole lines -- some 4 million unemployed -- are the most glaring hole in Mr. Schroeder's attempt to blame everyone but himself for Germany's economy."
The new government's second challenge, the paper writes, is repairing Germany's relations with the United States following Schroeder's failed strategy of protesting U.S. action in Iraq. Mending relations will be a slow process, but the paper says Germany's "long record since World War Two of standing by its allies and the international community suggests that Mr. Schroeder [will] have to find a way to climb back from this campaign posturing."
The editorial concludes: "Much about this election campaign showed the Germany of postwar stereotype -- conservative and anti-change. But it would be wrong to put too much stock in this caricature. [After] yesterday's elections any German government must start from the position that the status quo isn't acceptable."
An editorial in "The Times" says: "Herr Schroeder has orchestrated his remarkable electoral comeback by moving attention away from the lethargic state of the domestic economy to other issues at home and abroad." Having used the strategy to win, he should now abandon it for a more practical approach in office. Schroeder, it writes, must "return in a far more vigorous fashion to the economic reforms that he sought to implement during his first two years in office" -- preferably in tandem with reform at the EU level.
But, the paper continues, "the most immediate controversy confronting Schroeder is his 'poisoned' relationship with Washington" -- not only because of recent remarks by Germany's justice minister (Herta Daubler-Gmelin) comparing U.S. President George W. Bush to Hitler, but also because of the stance of the chancellor himself.
"The Times" says: "Germany is currently in a position where it would actively oppose not only a unilateral American invasion of Iraq but any expedition endorsed by the United Nations as well. [Schroeder] should not be comfortable with his new status as President Saddam Hussein's favorite European leader."
"It has long been said that Germany is 'an economic giant, but a political pygmy,'" the paper notes. "This undeserved victory offers [Schroeder] an opportunity to encourage economic renewal, provide the EU with a sense of direction and permit Germany to exercise the authority on the global stage that it is entitled to possess." There is the fear, however, that that opportunity will be squandered.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
A second editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" begins with a joke: "It's a good thing Germany is already in the European Union," it says, "since it probably couldn't meet the economic criteria for membership today."
The editorial adds: "Such dark humor must be especially sweet in Slovakia," where this weekend's parliamentary elections left the party of the incumbent prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, well-placed to form a pro-EU, center-right administration. "By handing the nationalist Vladimir Meciar his worst electoral showing ever," the paper says, "Slovak voters pretty much assured their country will meet the political criteria to make the short lists for NATO and EU membership later in the year."
The editorial continues: "A former boxer who engineered the 'velvet' divorce from the Czech Republic and showed scant respect for democratic niceties, Mr. Meciar single-handedly made sure Slovakia was snubbed by NATO and the EU when he was prime minister in the 1990s." This time around, the paper says, Slovak voters had a "free choice" between isolation and closer ties with the West. The result, it concludes, "vindicates the insistence of NATO and the EU that certain politicians are simply not welcome."
German newspapers today focus on the results of yesterday's elections, which left Chancellor Schroeder's center-left coalition in power by the narrowest of margins. Preliminary official results show Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) and his coalition partner, the Greens, with a combined 47.1 percent of the vote. Conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber's Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) and the Free Democrats, his chosen coalition partner, had 45.9 percent.
In a commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Heribert Prantl writes: "Stoiber's Christian Democratic alliance has won the elections but has not conquered. He made his Christian Democratic Party the strongest, he achieved an excellent result, but nevertheless he is not even close to becoming the successor. And Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has actually lost the elections, but he has a good chance of becoming chancellor once more, thanks to the Green Party."
There is such a fine line between the two parties that the tension is likely to continue in the days to come, Prantl predicts. In such a stalemate situation, "nothing is impossible."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
German-language papers also comment on the weekend elections in Slovakia, in which former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's HZDS took the largest single block of votes, with 19.5 percent. But Meciar is isolated and a four- or five-party center-right grouping formed around current Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's SDKU looks set to form a government.
The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" in its commentary says in the past there was always a big question mark with regard to Slovakia joining NATO and being admitted to the EU. This question, the paper says, "no longer exists. The Slovak electorate has confirmed its euro-political course, which Dzurinda's government launched four years ago, and has barred the advance of the populists from the left and right."
The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" adds: "The ballot signifies a self-liberation for the Slovaks. The ghost named Meciar -- who has overshadowed the country in its integration endeavors ever since this young state gained independence -- has been banished."
NEUE ZUERCHER ZEITUNG:
The Swiss "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" also comments that the Slovaks "are on their way to the West." Only 10 years since the establishment of an independent Slovakia the voters have taken definite leave of Meciar, the founder of the state, the paper says.
"It seems," the paper writes, "that there is no longer a danger that Slovakia will stand for a second time before a door that is closed to Western integration, which is one of its foreign policy priorities." Between 1994 and 1998, Meciar, with his dubious political methods, led the country into international isolation. A perpetuation of such policies would have been unacceptable.
Meciar's failure to return is a credit not only to pressure from Western neighbors but to the relative stability of Prime Minister Dzurinda's coalition government. With the election over, the paper says, foreign attention will diminish. It is now vital for the new administration to replace a common enemy with a common program for advancing Slovakia's Western integration.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
Several commentaries probe Washington's apparent determination to pursue regime change in Iraq. In a piece in "The New York Times," Michael Levi, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Strategic Security Project, writes that while U.S. President Bush is correct to warn of the danger posed by a nuclear-armed Iraq, he remains "unevenly engaged in other efforts that would stem the spread of nuclear weapons."
He adds: "Ours is a dangerous stance: If we remove the threat of Saddam Hussein while leaving the rest of our nonproliferation policy unchanged, we will achieve only a marginal improvement in our security against nuclear terror. To make an invasion of Iraq worthwhile, a new investment in nuclear security is urgently needed."
Saddam, he notes, is not the only one pursuing the fissile material it needs to complete its weapons program. Although Al-Qaeda's bomb-making capacity is likely not as sophisticated as Saddam's, the network can still master simple Hiroshima-type weapons. This makes the issue of sequestering plutonium and enriched uranium especially crucial, Levi writes.
What is needed at a time like this, the author says, is heightened emphasis on nonproliferation issues. "A new investment in nonproliferation," Levi says, "would help convince a skeptical world that [the U.S.] obsession with Iraq is about weapons of mass destruction, not domestic politics or oil or revenge." He concludes: "If nuclear terrorism visits American, will it be any consolation that the bomb was not Saddam Hussein's?"
THE WASHINGTON POST:
Columnist Fred Hiatt, writing in "The Washington Post," says of the many justifications offered by the U.S. administration in pursuing regime change in Baghdad, concern for human rights is not one of them. He writes that President Bush, in seeking congressional support for a war against Iraq, has cited Baghdad's "brutal repression of its civilian population" -- implying that such tyranny "can be a legitimate cause for outside countries to intervene."
If that were so, Hiatt argues, the U.S. would also be proposing to wage war in North Korea, where as many as 3 million people have died of a famine resulting from the failed economic policies of a "brutally oppressive government." Instead, he says, "human rights organizations for years paid more attention to a relative handful of abuses in South Korea than to a nation founded on the eradication of all liberty and personality." The international community, he adds, has likewise failed to act in countries like Burma and Rwanda.
Hiatt writes that Saddam Hussein is among the world's cruelest dictators: "[He] has kept his people locked in the most brutal of police states. He has exterminated tens of thousands of Kurds, forcibly evicted tens of thousands of Shia Arabs and made routine the use of murder, rape and torture against Iraqis of every ethnicity." But even now, he adds, the U.S. administration "does not pretend that the 'liberation' of the Iraqi people is its primary motive; until a few days ago, officials barely mentioned human rights there."
"It is naive," Hiatt writes, "to think that people will link 'regime change' to 'brutal repression' as a regular matter anytime soon." But to those who are suffering -- in North Korea and elsewhere -- the proposition, he says, "might not seem so outlandish."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)