German Elections Gerhard Schröder, the Comeback Chancellor

Although his party was still neck and neck with his conservative opponent, Sunday night marked a major political comeback for Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who had been completely written off as a lame duck just a few months ago. Whether he becomes chancellor or not -- the fact the Christian Democrats could hardly beat him came as a major political victory.

Gerhard Schröder saves his first words on Sunday night for his greatest antagonists. "Media power and media manipulation," the German chancellor yells from the foyer of his Social Democratic Party's (SDP) headquarters, could not prevail against the will of the people. The people have spoken and they have decided in his favor, Schröder says. The cheering is deafening. "Gerhard, Gerhard," the people shout, pushing "Schröder for Germany" signs into the air. Sitting next to the chancellor is SPD party chief Franz Müntefering, who's beaming from ear to ear.

This is one of those "big moments," for which Schröder seems to live. Just as he did when he declared new elections after his party's election defeat in the western German state of North-Rhine Westphalia in May, Schröder is doing what he loves most: He's taking the biggest political gamble he possibly can. At this point, it's 7:30 p.m., and the SPD is just behind the Christian Democratic Union in election forecasts. It's still entirely unclear what government coalitions will be possible. Nevertheless, Schröder leaves no doubt about just who's been given the mandate for building a government. He is the only one who can build a stable government for Germany, he says. "Those who thought they could get a new chancellor have failed on a grandiose scale."

Once again, Schröder is very publicly playing with power -- and he seems deeply pleased to be doing so. On stage, he wears a bright smile, and he allows the drowning applause to continue for several minutes as he holds his hands, clasped together, above his head. This is his comeback and he is enjoying it fiendishly. There has been much to read about the "patriot" who voluntarily cleared the way for a new government when he called for snap autumn elections in May -- a man who would go honorably into retirement, where he was supposed to care for Victoria, the daughter he and his wife recently adopted from Russia.

The judgment from commentators in the German media was handed down on the night of May 22, when the SPD lost state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia. Gerhard Schröder had given up, they said. Even within his own party, politicians said Schröder was crazy. Back in May, colleagues gathered at the SPD's party headquarters in Berlin were already saying his decision to call new elections was "political suicide."

But then Schröder held his first campaign speech. And then another. And another. In the end, he took to the stump over 100 times and spoke to over 500,000 German voters. Over 21 million watched as he took on Angela Merkel in the campaign's only televised debate between the two leading candidates. An overwhelming majority of those who watched felt that Schröder was the winner. He was the more likeable, the more competent and even the more normal of the two candidates. At some point in the last few weeks, even the most cynical commentators began once again voicing their respect for him -- the phrase "Powerhouse Schröder" began making the rounds. Could he really do it again? When the SPD, just days before the vote, began gaining in the pre-election surveys, even the CDU began getting nervous in the face of Schröder's determination.

Now, it seems as though his risky move of calling for new election may be bearing fruit. Schröder's result on Sunday evening is much higher than surveys indicated when he called for snap elections in May and his Social Democrats seem more united than they have been in a long time. Schröder himself is unassailable within his party. Even more importantly, his opponents are weaker than ever. The CDU result may only have been the third-worst in party history and not the absolute worst, but soon, the bitter infighting will begin. Merkel, said Schröder on Sunday, received a "disastrous result" -- payback for her "arrogance."

But is the political balance now truly more stable as Schröder is suggesting? Have voters validated his reform mandate to the extent he had desired? The vote is anything but clear. Indeed, it's not even certain how long Schröder's comeback will last.

Of course, even if his opponent has fallen flat on her face, the SPD result is likewise hardly cause for celebration. Just 34 percent is one of the party's worst results ever and only slightly better than the 33.5 percent received by the party -- led, at the time, by Oskar Lafontaine -- in the first general elections after reunification in 1990. "We can't be terribly pleased about our numbers," said Rüdiger Fikentscher, chairman of the SPD executive committee. "But in comparison with the CDU, it's a fantastic result."

The campaign goal, the SPD leadership crowed, has been achieved. The party, they argue, will be the strongest going into coalition negotiations -- assuming one looks at Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union as two separate parties -- and thus Gerhard Schröder should remain chancellor. SPD leader Franz Müntefering swooned over a "huge victory for Gerd Schröder." It's the same kind of self-hypnotism the duo has been working with throughout the election. More than anything, the swaggering behavior seems aimed at making it impossible for Merkel to become chancellor.

Of course nobody is prepared yet to talk on the record about coalitions -- the only one that has been ruled out by Schröder and SPD leader Franz Müntefering is a government involving the Left Party. But aside from that, it is difficult to understand exactly what the SPD is aiming for. Does he want a so-called "traffic-light coalition" -- a grouping that would have the SPD forming a government with the Greens and the neo-liberal Free Democrats (FDP)?

In a lot of ways, this would be a dream result for Schröder. He could continue on his reform path and the FDP would provide an ideal counterweight to the left wing of his own SPD. The only problem with such a coalition is that both the Greens and the FDP have said they won't play along. But in the SPD, there's suddenly an amazing amount of support for such a government.

The other -- and perhaps the most realistic -- possibility is a grand coalition pairing Schröder's party with Merkel's CDU. Both Schröder and Müntefering have said that such a government would only be possible were the CDU to agree to Schröder continuing as chancellor -- which is hard to imagine. "The country wants to have Gerhard Schröder as chancellor," Müntefering said on Sunday evening. Merkel, on the other hand, has suffered a "personal defeat," he continued. Such statements don't allow for much flexibility when coalition negotiations begin.

But not everybody in the SPD leadership -- gathered at the Willy Brandt House in Berlin -- was prepared to celebrate on Sunday night. "When the decision was made to call for snap elections, there was lots of celebration," said one prominent party member. "But then came the hangover."

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