Gerhard Schröder Socialist Affairs traces the life of the winner of the German federal elections in September

Issue 3, Volume 47, 1998

The victory of Gerhard Schröder, the candidate of the German Social Democratic Party, SPD, in the federal elections on 27 September marks the end of a sixteen year hegemony over German federal politics by the Christian Democrats and their leader Helmut Kohl. Voting produced a swing to the SPD which was much greater than the public opinion polls had suggested and larger indeed than the members of the Party itself had expected. The SPD, the party of Willy Brandt and one of the historic pillars of the Socialist International itself, achieved 252 seats with just short of 41 per cent of the ballots cast for the 672 members of the Bundestag or lower house of the German parliament, while the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian affiliate the Christian Social Union, could achieve only a little over 35 per cent of the vote and 294 seats. Kohl himself lost to the SPD the seat he had long occupied in the northern constituency of Ludwigshaven, returning to parliament only because he was a member of the CDU list of candidates for the Land of the Rhine Palatinate. The Greens, with whom the SPD will govern, won 6.7 per cent and 49 seats. The Free Democrats came fourth with 6.2 per cent and 47 seats. This increasingly neo-liberal party therefore lost the powerful third position. The former Communists standing under the label of the Democratic Socialist Party took 5.1 per cent of the poll with 30 of their candidates going to the Bundestag. Polling notably in the east of the country in what, before re-unification, was known as the German Democratic Republic, they fell well short of the share of the poll that some pollsters and commentators had predicted before the election.

The new chancellor announced that negotiations on the programme of a new government with the Greens were `the logical consequence' of the election.

The election also marks a personal triumph for the champion of the SPD who was named chancellor by the President of the Federal Republic, the Christian Democrat Roman Herzog, after Schröder gained a majority of the Bundestag in the first round of voting.

In his first major statement in which he hailed the coming to power of the `New Centre', Schröder announced, `Our role will be to modernise our country from top to bottom and overcome the block put on the process of reform. The electors have chosen in these elections a change of generation. These elections have also been marked by a campaign of polarisation and a big divide of our country into two camps. I said during the campaign that the task of a new government would be to bring the country together again and overcome the internal divisions. I say this especially for the inhabitants of the East because it is necessary to achieve internal unity in our nation.'

The SPD victory was immediately hailed by its sister parties within the Socialist International. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, leader of the French Socialists, said that the elections strengthened, `the cohesion of the peoples of Europe around the ideals of modernity and solidarity'. Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party said it was `the beginning of a new era.' In Italy Massimo D'Alema, leader of the Democrats of the Left, DS, said that Schröder's victory would give `a strong social impetus' to German politics.

In Spain José Borrell, the candidate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, PSOE, for the premiership, pointed out that the conservative government of José María Aznar was now alone in Europe. `All the big European countries are governed by the left. It's a new fact of history.'

On 30 September on his first visit outside Germany since his election Schröder visited Paris where he saw Jospin and the French president, he backed calls by the French and British government for a reform of the international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and called for greater coordination between the Group of Seven rich countries and Russia.

The new German leader has risen from a difficult and deprived childhood to the most important post in his country and one of the most important in Europe.

Schröder's father was killed in Romania in the closing stages of the Second World War, a few days before he was born on 7 April 1944 in a village in Westphalia. Further tragedy hit the family when his step-father became gravely ill and, when Gerhard was ten, had to enter a sanatorium. Schröder's mother worked as a cleaner to support the children. At fourteen, the time when he should have been studying hard for the Abitur, the German certificate of secondary education, he had to take employment as an assistant in a china shop. There was not enough money in the family to pay the costs of secondary school - or indeed the fare to get there. `At home in the 1950s and 1960s my mother and my brothers and sisters lived with the help of social security. I will never forget that', he says. He is certain that Germans seeking to educate themselves should not have to `depend on Daddy's and Mummy's money.'

But the future SPD leader was not to be defeated easily. He studied at night school winning his Abitur when he was 22 and then studying law at Göttingen University. While at university he began to play a prominent role in the Party's youth wing of which he became leader in 1978. His studies gained him what he needed for the legal career during which he specialised in civil rights cases, some of which won him nationwide attention.

He rose in the party hierarchy eventually winning two terms as Prime Minister of Lower Saxony. He also gained a knowledge of business, not least as a member of the supervisory board of Volkswagen, based at Wolfsburg and the largest enterprise in Lower Saxony. `In Germany you can't do anything, least of all with the SPD voter, if you are unprepared to demonstrate a modicum of willingness to cooperate with business.'

His business acumen, allied to a strong political sense, was demonstrated when he arranged the purchase recently of Salzgitter, the steel plant which employs 12,000 people in Lower Saxony, when its future was in jeopardy in the hands of its Austrian owners. He did it in such a way that the operation resulted not only in a continuation of the jobs, but also in a handsome profit for the government of Lower Saxony and its bankers.

His electoral platform predictably concentrated on defending living standards of the majority, promising to restore some of the benefits taken away from workers under the sixteen-year rule of Kohl. He recalled the days of the earlier SPD governments of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, but said during the election, `Today when a worker on a medium salary hears the word `reform', he says to himself, `What's Kohl going to take out of my wallet now', adding: 'The word `reform' has recently been used to justify a drop in standards of living. But that's not what we are about', then, `This manifesto doesn't contain any promises that can't be kept'.

In his labour strategy he has had the benefit of the advice of Walter Riester, the deputy chairman of IG Metall, the powerful trade union and with him among others he fashioned the `Alliance for Jobs' which should become a main plank in the policy of any government lead by Schröder. It foresees the creation of 100,000 new jobs which would be of special advantage to younger Germans in a country where the unemployment rate touches 10.6 per cent of the working population.

The unemployment plans are only one of five parts of a strategy for the first hundred days of government. The others embrace innovation (with more public sector money going to bolster investment and research for industry); justice and the protection of social security and pensions (which had been reduced under the Christian Democrats); the environment and ecology (with special emphasis on an increase in the amount of solar power generated) and arts and culture (with aid for the German film industry).

In his election campaign the candidate certainly did not forget the cultural side of life. With the help of Jack Lang, the former Culture Minister of the late French Socialist President François Mitterrand he summoned a large and heterogeneous gathering of artists and intellectuals in Berlin.

On the question of the European Union's place in the world, the SPD leader firmly backs the new currency which starts its life at the beginning of 1999.




© 1998 Socialist Affairs. All rights reserved.


Signed articles represent the views of the authors only, not necessarily those of Socialist Affairs or the Socialist International