German Elections: 'Bosses' comrade' for Chancellor

Imre Karacs
Sunday 27 September 1998 23:02 BST

GERHARD SCHRoDER, the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, emerged last night as the man to lead Germany into the next millennium.

Mr Schroder has experienced many political metamorphoses in his life, has been divorced three times, and changes his mind often. In so many ways, he is everything Helmut Kohl was not.

He was born into poverty in October 1944. His father, a labourer in civilian life, died on the Eastern Front three days after his son's birth.

His mother remarried again, but her new husband suffered from tuberculosis, and she had to fend for the five children alone. She cleaned the barracks of the British occupation forces in the northern town of Lemgo for a living.

At the age of 12, young Gerhard had to work in the fields to supplement the family income, and was forced to leave school early to help keep the bailiffs away by working as an apprentice salesman at a china shop.

Always ambitious and determined, he studied at evening classes, promising his mother that "one day I'll take you away from all this in a Mercedes".

After finishing high school at his own expense, Mr Schroder obtained a law degree at Gottingen university and went on to become a lawyer. These were heady days. Mr Schroder professed himself to be a "Marxist" as he plunged into the maelstrom of left-wing politics. He rose to become President of the Social Democrat Party's youth wing, the "Young Socialists".

But dogma did not interest him as much as power. Balancing three warring factions, Mr Schroder outflanked them all, and re-positioned the Young Socialist movement closer to the mainstream than it had been.

By the time he reached Bonn as an MP in 1980, and stood outside the chancellery, shaking the gate and shouting "I want to get in there", he had already lost much of his leftist ardour. And when, 10 years later, he was elected Prime Minister of his native Lower Saxony, the former firebrand was already presenting himself as a paragon of pragmatism.

Like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Mr Schroder was prepared to recognise the importance of keeping business sweet long before his party colleagues, who are still inclined to declaim about "social justice" in one of the richest countries of the world. "The economy isn't everything, but without the economy there is nothing," he would say frequently, during this campaign.

But Mr Schroder's administrative record is patchy. After his eight years at the helm, Lower Saxony is more heavily in debt than most other Lander, yet it has a level of unemployment higher than the average in the West.

In spite of this blemish, he keeps being re-elected, and by increasing majorities.

The voters seem to like the way he oils the wheels of business, lobbies for investment and intervenes occasionally with public funds to save an enterprise from going under, or from being bought by a foreign firm. At the same time, he cuts deals with the unions and tries to keep the wage bills low.

That, at least, was the Gerhard Schroder everybody knew: the "bosses' comrade", who scarcely fitted into the traditional mainstream of the Social Democrat Party.

The views that outraged the left for so long have not been in evidence on the stumps in the past few months. But it is clear from the choice of people that he has picked for the shadow government that his administration plans to shake up Germany, and particularly its welfare system. Mr Schroder regards the Dutch economic model as one Germany should copy.

In the Netherlands, wages were cut with the agreement of the unions, laws were changed to encourage part-time work, and the unemployed were - in effect - chased off the dole. If this is Mr Schroder's remedy, Germany is in for a shock.

In foreign affairs, the new government is certain to confirm Mr Kohl's European agenda, even on the question of the euro, which Mr Schroder had once dismissed as "monopoly money". He has signalled a shift away from France in the leadership of the European Union, and the replacement of the Franco-German axis with a "triangle" also including Britain.

Governing Germany will be more complicated than running Lower Saxony. It remains to be seen how he can deal with constraints imposed by the opposition. For the first four years as Prime Minister, he had to co-operate with Green ministers. This time, he may end up having to balance politicians from across the range of German politics.

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