Adolf Hitler and the recent floods are part of the mixed baggage that Germany’s chancellor carried panting to the finishing line after a close electoral race. Mr Gerhard Schröder has been re-elected by the skin of his teeth, and with a considerably reduced majority. His centre-left Social Democratic Party now enjoys the slimmest majority in post-war Germany. But more significantly, the Greens have had their best showing in their more than two-decades-long history, gaining a record 8.6 per cent of the vote. This makes them part of a red and green ruling coalition. Mr Schröder’s Roman Catholic, Bavarian and rightwing contender, Mr Edmund Stoiber, although defeated, leads what is once again the largest single party — a combine of the Christian Democratic and the Christian Social Unions. Global as well as local factors have tilted the balance towards the centre-left. First, the floods have both showed up Mr Schröder’s leadership reflexes and vindicated the environmentalist cause. This has reinforced the chancellor’s popular charisma as well as the ascendancy of the Greens. Second, Mr Schröder has changed his stance on military intervention in Iraq from what it was in relation to Kosovo and Afghanistan. He has firmly opposed the American position on the use of force in bringing about a regime change in Iraq. This too has strengthened his alliance with the staunchly pacifist Greens. But his justice minister has made matters a tad nasty by comparing Mr George W. Bush to Hitler in the Iraqi affair, and Mr Schröder is now faced with the unenviable task of having to placate a frosty Bush administration without appearing to compromise his principles.
Locally, the German electorate seems to have preferred familiarity and stability, embodied in the chancellor, to the ambivalent promise of radical reforms from his rightwing contender. Unemployment, low growth and rising deficit, high wage costs, an inflexible labour market and huge debts in the health, pension and social service sectors will remain the burdens of this coalition. The German people cannot be blamed for preferring these to Mr Stoiber’s racial mischief — the heady brew of immigration, terrorism and unemployment his last-minute campaigns had served up for what he calls the “real Germany”. The European Union’s big issues will, however, remain Mr Schröder’s main challenges: financing the enlargement of the Union with a view to December’s Copenhagen summit, getting the Franco-German alliance back on the road (especially on the crucial issue of farm subsidies), and finally, the future of the “stability pact” in relation to Germany’s sluggish economy. “We have hard times in front of us”, admits Mr Schröder, but he seems equally confident of being able to “make it together”.