German Social Democrat leader Gerhard Schröeder has edged ahead in the polls by opposing George Bush's war drive in the run-up to Germany's general election on Sunday. Three polls at the end of last week put Schröeder, leader of the German equivalent of the Labour Party, a couple of points ahead of his challenger Edmund Stoiber, a hard right Tory.
They marked a sharp reversal of Schröeder's chances for re-election. Until last Friday his SPD party had been behind the Tory Christian Democrats throughout this year, by up to 9 percent. But over the last month Schröeder has come out sharply against the war, putting it at the centre of the election campaign. He has repeatedly said Germany will not back US action against Iraq, even if Bush can cajole other states such as Russia, China and France into going along with it. That anti-war stance has increased support for the SPD.
Up to 80 percent of people in Germany are opposed to a war on Iraq, according to the polls. SPD activists report that Schröeder's words against war have won back voters who elected him four years ago, but who are bitterly disillusioned at his pro-business policies. Four million people in Germany are unemployed.
The late surge in support for the SPD has thrown Stoiber into panic. He is the leader of the CSU - the Tory party in the southern German state of Bavaria and the sister party of the CDU, the national Tory party. He is the most right wing candidate for chancellor (prime minister) the Tories have put up for over two decades. At the beginning of the election campaign two months ago Stoiber worked hard to play down his right wing image.
Both he and Schröeder tried to occupy the centre ground with bland slogans and a near consensus over working with big business. But now the campaign has become sharper. Schröeder has inched to the left. For example, he scrapped tax cuts to pay victims of recent floods.
Stoiber has swung sharply to the right in the last few days of the campaign. When he spoke in the German parliament and at a rally in Cologne on Friday of last week he laid into immigrants. In words that were a chilling echo of the 1930s he linked immigration and unemployment: 'Another four years of Schröeder would mean more immigration - more immigration to Germany that is irresponsible in a country with four million unemployed.' Stoiber, who is reluctantly in favour of a war if it has UN backing, has been forced to appear as the pro-war candidate, and has accused Schröeder of 'anti-Americanism'.
Discontent is growing
Whoever wins the election will face a deepening left wing mood in Germany. That mood was shown by a 30,000-strong demonstration in Cologne last Saturday. It was called by the anti-capitalist umbrella group ATTAC, youth sections of the trade unions, and the peace movement.
People marched over a range of issues - from opposition to the war to unemployment. They were united by the call for 'another politics' to the left of the mainstream parties. Many said they would reluctantly vote for the SPD or the Greens purely to keep Stoiber out.
Peter Stahl, a teacher from Cologne, told Socialist Worker, 'I have voted SPD all my life, but this time it's difficult. The government has taken us into two wars, has allowed unemployment to go back up over four million, and has abandoned what the left stands for. Now Schröeder says he is against the war. That is the only reason I can think of to vote for him. But he had better keep his promise or there will be hell to pay.'
Members of IG Metall and Verdi, the two biggest unions in Germany, told Socialist Worker how they had no enthusiasm for Schröeder. Walter Ruemlin, an apprentice from Dortmund, said, 'This is not like 1998. If Schröeder wins this time then there will be a big sigh of relief, not celebrations. Then people will want an answer to unemployment and privatisation. And they will want us firmly kept out of whatever that madman Bush does.' Schröeder, however, remains committed to policies that have created bitterness over the last four years.
Impact beyond Germany
The outcome of Sunday's general election will have an impact way beyond Germany. Schröeder came to office in 1998 as part of a wave of victories for social democratic or Labour parties across Europe. All those governments have since created deep disillusionment by following pro-business policies.
That has resulted in a string of election defeats, most importantly for the Socialist Party in France and the left of centre coalition in Italy. And it has meant worrying breakthroughs for the far right and Nazis.
New Labour's response has been to say that Labour-type governments must adopt hard right wing positions on issues such as crime and immigration. Peter Mandelson and New Labour pollster Phillip Gould argued last week that New Labour must step up vicious measures against asylum seekers. But where social democratic parties have done that it is the right and far right that have gained.
Right wing parties in Sweden campaigned against immigration in the hope of beating the Social Democrat led government at last Sunday's general election. But they lost. Social Democrat leader Goran Persson won by making defence of the welfare state the key election issue.