Profile Gerhard Schroder: The third way to oblivion

Apeing Tony Blair has gone very wrong for the new German chancellor: his popularity has collapsed.

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The ambitious young MP stood outside the doors of the German Chancellery in Bonn, rattling the gate and shouting: "I want to get in." In what must seem a lifetime later that MP is now on the inside, often, it seems, keener on escaping the gilded cage than entering it.

Gerhard Schroder became chancellor a year ago in a famous victory when he ousted the seemingly invincible Helmut Kohl. Schroder has aged a lot since then. His fine head of hair is thinning, the playful blue eyes are paling, and his girth is beginning to rival Kohl's. More and more, the cameras capture a frozen scowl, rather than the trademark grin. For a man who draws heavily on his sex appeal, this is bad news.

The voters do not like what they see and they will be able to make their views clear today in a series of regional elections where he faces defeat on a grand scale. The Social Democrats are trailing the Christian Democrats by 15 points in the polls; Mr Schroder's government is already one of the most unpopular governments in post-war German history.

His party, the Social Democrats, detest him. They chose him as the "vote- machine", as the only man capable of bringing them to power. This is the first of many similarities with Tony Blair, the man he took as his role model. While Blair is having his own difficulties, they are minor compared to Schroder's. The German electorate believe that Schroder is no longer delivering the goods. And some German analysts are blaming the British Prime Minister.

In an attempt to stop a sense of drift enveloping his government and to set a clear direction, Schroder signed up to Mr Blair's "Third Way" and the voters have become even more resentful. Since June, his government has been officially treading the "Third Way", as defined by the so-called "Blair-Schroder paper". Mr Schroder's troubles with his party, the unions and the voters have been multiplying ever since.

A top-level party commission concluded last week that Blairism was at best irrelevant to Germany, at worst a danger to its hard-fought social peace. That analysis would appear to leave the central dogma of the new government in ruins, with only Mr Schroder believing in its correctness. Or does he? The Blair camp in London were never convinced, and the German voters at home have concluded over the years that their chancellor is incapable of holding on to any set of beliefs for long, other than faith in a happy symbiosis between power and money. To charges that he is nothing more than the "comrade of the bosses", Mr Schroder retorts: "I know where I'm coming from. I know where I'm going." It is just that he likes to keep his destination secret. Even from his closest colleagues.

His fairytale origins - at least from a Social Democrat perspective - are genuine enough. Mr Schroder was born into poverty 55 years ago; though he was an accomplished football player he spent his summers in the fields picking potatoes. He left school early for an apprenticeship at a china shop. Only years later did he get the opportunity to complete his education at evening classes, and he did not qualify as a lawyer until he was 32.

He has described himself as a "Marxist" in those days, although his contemporaries remember him as a man with little interest in ideology of any sort. He was, however, even then bursting with political ambition and it was clear that nothing would be allowed to slow him down. He rose through the ranks of the Young Socialists, the party's youth wing, and was elected chairman at the age of 34.

The organisation was a battlefield between left and right. Mr Schroder, pushed into his hot seat by the left, proceeded to play the two wings against each other, ostensibly for the sake of unity. By the end of his tenure, the Young Socialists were a streamlined outfit, controlled by the "New Centre" that was to form Mr Schroder's future power base. Here the Schroder method quickly became apparent. During his inexorable rise to the top, many allies would find themselves used and then eventually discarded. This may be why there are few Schroder loyalists around now to fill the vacancies that are in the chancellor's gift. He has made it to the summit, but now he stands there alone.

He got there, against all the odds, because he had something special. "Say what you like about Schroder," party activists would mutter, "but he knows how to win votes." He proved that in his home state, Lower Saxony, election after election. In personal contact, he exudes natural charm. Furthermore, he is able to get this quality on to the television screen - skills he shares with Tony Blair. Recent experience shows he is not quite as successful at keeping that smile going as his British role model, but still a lot better than most German politicians.

The Schroder magic does not work away from television when he comes to work the crowds. He appears only to be acting and lacks sincerity. The speaker and the audience are separated by a curtain of distrust. But Mr Schroder discovered earlier than his competitors that election battles these days were largely fought on television screens, and not in smoke- filled rooms. Mass rallies were best left to someone else - to Oskar Lafontaine, for instance, a key ally whom Schroder cast adrift soon after his election.

But Schroder misses Oskar Lafontaine. The former finance minister, alias the "most dangerous man in Europe", filled the left-inclined party with a warm glow and provided a perfect excuse for the chancellor. It was during a recent outing with another ally, Michael Naumann, that Schroder most clearly elucidated his method of government. "When things work out, I take the credit. When they don't, I blame him," the chancellor said, jokingly pointing at his friend, the state secretary for culture.

It is not so much of a joke. That is roughly what happened to Oskar, and now there is no one to blame. Bodo Hombach, the Blairite ideologue, is gone, too. He had to be removed from his powerful job at the chancellery and packed off to Brussels because, as Mr Hombach himself put it, he was no longer able to function as a lightning conductor. Relatively piffling corruption allegations against Mr Hombach were used by enemies of the chancellor to discredit both men. Call it Oskar's revenge.

There is more to come. Mr Lafontaine's memoirs are due out next month, and are already a gilt-edged bet for the best-seller list. The former minister promises to spread the dirt about his brief tenure in the government, but Schroder will doubtless get his retaliation in first. After all, this is a man who even gave the press chapter and verse on the breakdown of his third marriage in an effort to counter the aggrieved wife's version.

Three years ago Schroder was kicked out of his home because he had had an affair with a journalist 20 years his junior. That was one way of looking at it. The real story, as volunteered to the tabloids by the politician himself, was that the marriage had become untenable because his vegetarian wife Hiltrud had refused to cook him schnitzel. This is the account which prevailed among the public, boosting Schroder's popularity a notch or two. He has since made Doris, the journalist, wife number four and settled down. The eyes may still rove, but his hands no longer do. Mr Schroder is thought to be faithful to Doris.

But in personality he is still very much the product of that previous marriage. Hiltrud, a woman of elegance, credits herself with teaching Gerhard table manners and introducing him to fine wines, cigars and snazzy suits. Together they were the new royal family of Hanover, the talk of glamour magazines and gossip columns. Doris is more low key, but her husband continues to live up to his previous fat-cat image. He mixes with industrialists, does favours to friends in business, and awaits favours in return. Where he comes from, a rich style of living counts for achievement.

This does not go down well with the party, of course. The "cashmere chancellor" is demanding sacrifices from workers and pensioners as he hands out tax breaks to industry. Until now, Social Democrats were prepared to swallow their distaste for this rogue because he delivered them power. But the "Schroder effect" seems to be wearing off. The Social Democrats presided over by Mr Schroder are set to take a beating at today's two regional elections, and at further polls coming up. Every lost state means not only a waning of influence for the regional party, but also reduced power to get legislation through both houses of parliament.

The troops are already rebelling. A group of leftist MPs have threatened to thwart the austerity package - the only piece of Social Democrat legislation to have gained any applause so far. They will no doubt be brought to heel, but dykes elsewhere are bursting. More than 10,000 members have left the party in recent weeks, sleaze is enveloping town halls in the Social Democrat heartland of North Rhine - Westphalia, and Mr Lafontaine appears to be plotting a comeback. No one envies Mr Schroder now, but there is a great deal of glee going around, especially in the Social Democrat party. Accounts are being settled. And it is unlikely that Tony Blair will be able to help.

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