Although the election hasn’t been officially set yet, the campaign for the German election already seems to be in full swing.
It was to be expected that there would be a certain decline in the very high support for the CDU/CSU and a certain revival in the figures for SPD.
But even if this has happened, the distance between them is so substantial that it is virtually inconceivable that the SPD will be able to catch up with its chief opponent. The latest opinion poll figures gives app 42 % for CDU/CSU and app 28 % for SPD. They are in different leagues.
Nevertheless, the CDU/CSU seems to have had a less than stellar start to its campaign. The proposal to increase VAT was unlikely to be an instant crowd-pleaser, but neither does it seem to have developed into a major burden. Instead, it’s different verbal gaffes by different leading persons – now the CSU leader Edmund Stoiber – that has caught the attention and put the party somewhat on the defensive.
In itself, this might be more good than bad at this early stage of the campaign. A victory was taken too much for granted. Now it’s obvious that it will be a fight, and that concentration is necessary in order to truly win it.
For the SPD, the strategic dilemmas are very great indeed.
On the top level, it is flatly refusing to consider any “red-red-green” coalition that includes the leftist alternative that is essentially based on the old structures of East German communists, although now dressed in the clothes of general leftist populism. But there are dissenting voices, and so far the SPD has yet to find a consistent way of dealing with this new and strong threat to part of its electoral base.
Neither is it willing to consider the possibility of a big coalition with the CDU/CSU. Although such coalitions do exist on the state level, any discussion on it at the federal level is likely to play into the hands of the leftist. Influential figures in the present government are however indicating that they do see a grand coalition as a viable – perhaps even desirable – alternative.
Thus it isn’t easy for the SPD to get a clear line on one of the key issues of the campaign. And the problem is most unlikely to go away.
But suddenly Gerhard Schröder is back on a beaten track. In Hanover yesterday, he brought up the Iran issue, repeated the importance of denying Iran access to nuclear weapons, but stressed that there is no military option, saying with a very clear reference to Iraq and his opposition to the Iraq war that we have seen that it doesn’t work.
He is of course right in that there is no credible and effective military option in this case. But when President Bush indicated in an interview to Israeli television that all options are open, I think it should rather be seen as an attempt to reinforce the diplomatic track. There is no eagerness for new wars in the region in Washington.
But for Gerhard Schröder belligerent rhetoric over Iran in Washington is of course a gift from heaven in his campaign. Opposition to war is a strong feeling in German society, not the least in the important elderly part of the electorate.
Policy towards Iran will have manifold repercussions during the months to come. It’s unlikely that Schröder can use even very misplaced words in Washington to such effects as he did in the 2002 election campaign, but the issue is certainly worth watching carefully.
War is not a popular thing in present-day Europe. Some might think that is a sign of weakness. Others might see it as a source of strength after the centuries of war that Europe itself has seen.
Diplomacy backed by force is sometimes necessary.
But it must be handled with the utmost care. Otherwise it just carries failed diplomacy by transmission belt into failed wars.
That’s really something we can’t afford.