`Lame duck' Schroder faces defeats

LESS THAN a year into his term, Gerhard Schroder is rapidly turning into a lame-duck Chancellor: his majority consumed by internal battles, sleaze eating into the soul of his Social Democrat party (SPD), and a series of catastrophic election defeats looming.

The party faithful were left reeling yesterday at the news that Cologne's next lord mayor will, for the first time in 43 years, not be a Social Democrat, because their candidate had been forced to pull out amid allegations of insider dealing on the stock exchange. Klaus Heugel, the city manager, has had to stand down less than two weeks before the election.

Not since the war has a German government been so unpopular so early into its tenure. The Social Democrats lag 15 points behind the Christian Democrats, whom they trounced a year ago. The Red-Green government's majority of 21 is but an illusion: 34 Social Democrat MPs have threatened to vote against the government's austerity package.

Left and right are bickering in public, Social Democrat regional grandees are abandoning their Chancellor. Nothing he does seems to placate the fury of opponents fighting for traditional social democratic values, or soothe the frantic manoeuvrings of his allies.

Next Sunday, the voters of two traditional Social Democrat strongholds will deliver their verdict on the spectacle. In both Saarland and Brandenburg, the party is in danger of losing its absolute majority in the regional assembly. In Saarland, the fiefdom of Oskar Lafontaine, they may even come second to the Christian Democrats after 14 years of uninterrupted rule.

The "New Centre" conjured up by Mr Schroder's election strategists has vanished. And the Social Democrats are somehow contriving to be losing the left flank, as well.

Saarland is still Lafontaine country, now run by the former finance minister's protege, Reinhard Klimmt. Mr Klimmt set a trend by announcing he would oppose the government's austerity plan. Yet many traditional voters refuse to view his defence of socialist values as anything other than an act of disloyalty. Saarland began to drift towards the Christian Democrats when Mr Lafontaine stormed out of the government, citing his socialist principles.

That is not to say that the Schroderites are doing any better at the polls. Municipal elections in North Rhine-Westphalia are promising to deliver an equally devastating result on 12 September.

The drumbeat of elections will roll through the autumn, each striking a note of defeat for the Chancellor. Berlin in October is likely to deliver the Social Democrats' lowest-ever share in the city. In Saxony, Mr Schroder's party is in danger of coming third.

All these results matter, because the Lander control federal legislation through the Bundesrat, parliament's upper chamber. Already Mr Schroder lacks a majority there.

In the lower house, the Bundestag, matters are less complicated. Mr Schroder will no doubt succeed in cajoling the 34 leftist rebels who want the rich to suffer. The austerity package aims to slash 30bn marks from next year's public spending.

That still raises the question of how the Bundesrat is to be persuaded to pass the most ambitious piece of legislation for years. Germany has been here before, in the last years of the Kohl government. It was that paralysis Chancellor Schroder was supposed to have ended.