The chances of Gerhard Schröder remaining in power after the 22 September election can no longer be written off, a poll has suggested.
The poll, the first to be taken since the historic centre of Dresden was badly flooded and the Chancellor abandoned his campaign programme to front the government's response, shows the three parties on the left – Mr Schröder's Social Democrat Party, SDP, the Greens and the former East German communist party (PDS) have gained 3 points between them. The centre-right CDU-CSU, led by Edmund Stoiber, and the liberal FDP, which could join it in a coalition, lost 3 points. The left has thus closed the gap to the centre-right, which has remained almost unchanged, at between 5 and 9 points (depend-ing on the polling organisation), for months.
Another poll showed the left-right gap at 4 per cent, again narrower than before, with 46 per cent for the left and 50 per cent for the CDU/CSU and FDP. In that poll, the Greens stood at 7 per cent.
The poll results appear to bear out predictions that the flood disaster could be a political boon for the Chancellor. So long as the government can prolong the impression it is doing a competent job of flood relief, Mr Schröder's prospects should continue to improve.
Although Mr Stoiber was the first to visit the Danube flood zone, breaking his holiday in northern Germany to return to his home state of Bavaria, where he is premier, he had to give precedence to Mr Schröder when the much worse floods struck the Elbe and its tributaries in eastern Germany.
Mr Stoiber's one public intervention – when he called together the centre-right heads of government from all flood- affected areas on Saturday to discuss emergency assistance – rebounded badly when questions started to be asked about why he had invited only leaders from his own party and whether he had the authority to organise such a gathering that went beyond his own state.
Mr Schröder's meeting in Berlin on Sunday, in contrast, when he assembled the Prime Ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to discuss disaster aid with the president of the EU Commission, Romano Prodi, was seen as an appropriate move for the Chancellor, even though it brought few definite promises of money.
Then, on Monday, the Chancellor made his unexpected announcement that the government was freezing all public spending and postponing a programme of tax cuts planned for 2003. The move stands to win votes in the east, potentially key to the election because of the number of swing voters. Meanwhile, westerners' sympathy for the flood victims could overcome frustration at the absence of promised tax cuts.
The announcement took Mr Stoiber and the FDP by surprise and left them casting around for a response that would offer the same combination of compassion and competence. Mr Stoiber said he found the decision "one-sided" and it broke the "necessary social symmetry" between voluntary donations and public money and imposed the burden on ordinary taxpayers. The tax change requires the approval of conservatives, who have a majority in the Bundesrat upper house.
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