The floods may have saved Mr Schröder from political disaster

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The Independent Online

Any national leader who postpones long-promised tax cuts and freezes public spending one month before an election is one of two things. Either he has written off his chances of re-election so thoroughly that he is prepared to sacrifice expediency for the sake of doing what he believes to be right, or he is a diabolically canny politician.

Any national leader who postpones long-promised tax cuts and freezes public spending one month before an election is one of two things. Either he has written off his chances of re-election so thoroughly that he is prepared to sacrifice expediency for the sake of doing what he believes to be right, or he is a diabolically canny politician.

On the face of it, Germany's Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who has taken just such a decision – so as to clear funds for the flood disaster – belongs in the first category. Lagging in the polls, with little chance either of winning an overall majority in the Bundestag or even of cobbling together a coalition to remain in power, Mr Schröder decided to take the money from the most obvious and effective place – personal taxation.

Think of my decision what you will, he appeared to be saying, but I am appealing to your better selves; and if you punish me at the polls on 22 September, then so be it. I will have left office with a clear conscience.

There may indeed have been an element of desperation in Mr Schröder's decision. The flailing response of the opposition, however, suggests that Mr Schröder is a shrewder politician than he is often taken for. It also suggests he need not write off his chances of remaining Chancellor quite yet.

His chief election challenger, the centre-right Edmund Stoiber, said that it was wrong that the whole burden of flood relief should fall on the taxpayer. The CDU – centre-right partners to Mr Stoiber's CSU – said that its MPs would probably vote for the measure in the Bundestag, where it must still be approved. The liberal FDP, who could form a coalition with the centre-right, said they preferred voluntary contributions or a one-off levy.

But no one dared speak the truth – that Mr Schröder had just abandoned the centrepiece of his four years in power – for fear of prompting the unanswerable question: where else would they be able to raise so much money? Mr Schröder's electoral opponents now face a Bundestag debate where they risk appearing mean-spirited if they do not vote money for flood-victims, and irresponsible if they propose that the money should be borrowed. Sound stewardship of the economy in his state of Bavaria was Mr Stoiber's major electoral strength. Mr Schröder has now upstaged him.

Nor need postponing the second stage of tax cuts be so politically costly for Mr Schröder as first appearances might suggest. Shocked by the flood damage, Germans are in relatively generous mood. Moreover, the cuts were not due to come into force until 2003, so people can feel good about contributing to the relief effort without actually losing real cash.

Even better for Mr Schröder is that the tax cuts were never popular with the left of his Social Democratic Party or in former East Germany, as they would have benefited mainly middle- and upper-income earners. Now the left does not have to defend something it does not believe in.

The flood disaster has thrown Germany's election wide open. It has transformed the agenda and enabled Mr Schröder to display the combination of personal geniality and political competence that brought him victory four years ago.

Yesterday's first post-flood poll showed his long-lacklustre ratings starting to rise. In normal times, a politician who reneges on a promise to cut taxes is voting himself out of office. But this German election campaign is no longer "normal", and the Chancellor's cause is not yet lost.

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