European Elections: Germany - Third Way is no election winner

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The Independent Online
GERMAN SOCIAL Democrats braced themselves for Blairite upheaval yesterday, after their leader, spurred by a disastrous election result, vowed to nudge his party to the right.

"We expect hard confrontations," Chancellor Gerhard Schroder predicted. An internal reorganisation at Social Demo-crat headquarters is already under way, aimed at remnants of the traditionalists cast adrift by the resignation of Oskar Lafontaine earlier this year.

The new course was charted by a joint paper published last week by Mr Schroder and Tony Blair. Though its wording was sufficiently vague to minimise offence in Mr Schroder's hinterland, it still provoked an outcry among trade unionists and prominent left-wingers.

Contrary to its original intentions, though, the paper probably aggravated the Social Democrats' defeat on Sunday. The party plunged to its worst result yet, finishing 18 points behind the Christian Democrats in the European elections. In local elections held in some parts of Germany, Mr Schroder's party fared just as dismally, with some stunning reverses in former heartlands.

Yesterday, the Chancellor attributed the "heavy defeat" to the low turn- out and disappointment with his government's performance. No one would argue with that, but the turn-out was in part low because many traditional Social Democrats felt no urge to vote for a party that had just rubbed their noses in the Blair-Schroder paper.

Perhaps that was why by yesterday the Chancellor was toning down the rhetoric, denying, for instance, that he had ever intended to cut back on certain welfare provisions. The "New Centre" - Schroderese for "Third Way" - barely got a mention. "Social justice", on the other hand, made several appearances during his press conference.

What everyone in Germany really wants to know is when the new ideology that propelled Mr Schroder to power last September will manifest itself in policy. The Chancellor conceded that the voters felt his government's record on domestic issues, and especially the economy, was poor.

"We have understood the warning," he said. But the apparently new policies he set out in a five-point programme were already painfully familiar.

Meanwhile, the pro-business faction in the ascendant has no new ideas to replace them, other than what can be pinched from the Blairite copy book. And it has yet to be proved that these might work in Germany.

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