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Germans vote to decide future of relations between U.S. and Europe

Photo
Jason Baran
Columnist
By Jason Baran
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday September 4, 2002

Just 19 days from today, Germans will head to the polls to elect a new chancellor. The two leading candidates are the current Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and long-time Bavarian political heavyweight Edmund Stoiber.

Germany has been fighting a struggling economy marked by very high unemployment. According to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, the unemployment rate has been hovering around 10 percent since January, 2001. That is staggering considering Germany has one of the world's strongest economies. In comparison, the United States' unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has been steady at a relatively high 5.9 percent. Great Britain's is at a similar rate.

Schroeder, the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, has been at the helm during this downturn and is facing strong opposition from Stoiber and the Christian Unions. The New York Times reported the race has tightened after months with Stoiber in the lead. That Stoiber was leading is remarkable because his party is weak in nearly all German states but Bavaria.

Schroeder has gained ground in the wake of severe flooding in Europe and a public dislike of Stoiber's personality. He's considered much less affable than his opponent. Stoiber is campaigning on job-stimulating tax cuts and reforms in the labor market. Schroeder has also, until recently, been attempting to position himself as ready to make the changes necessary to break Germany out of the recession. The New Times reports that Germans are left unmotivated by both candidates.

This is an interesting parallel to our last presidential election. The margin that separates the two is only a few percentage points. Whatever the outcome, the winning candidate will be lacking a mandate for change. The lack of general support for either candidate makes feelings of certainty across Europe, especially in Germany, increasingly important. Schroeder has identified one such public feeling anti-Americanism and has begun to push it as the basis for reelection.

Schroeder has tapped into the anti-American sentiment prevalent throughout Europe. The cold shoulder approach to the United States is certainly nothing new. Yet that one of our strongest allies is making a platform out of it is unnerving. He has stated that he will not support any action against Iraq. This is a view shared by many Europeans, and that he echoes this sentiment is not surprising. It is unsettling, however, that it appears to have become his soapbox issue as the election season winds down. Germany has been one of our stronger allies over the years, but such boisterous talk might strain relations. The question remains whether this is just big talk to gain support or a more serious rift between the administrations. Only time will tell.

Stoiber is also opposed to action, but remains open to the use of German troops under the right circumstances. It seems that Stoiber is more receptive to cooperation with the United States than Schroeder is. His openness on this issue is a good foundation for a strong German-American relationship.

This race is reportedly so close that personality may play a much larger part in this election than in Germany's previously party-driven elections. Will our relations with Germany be dictated by something as trivial as body language or a cheery smile? One hopes not.

While this race probably won't hinge on a single factor, other related issues may coalesce to make an interesting final three weeks. Though seemingly uninteresting to the bulk of Americans, the race for the German chancellery may play a significant role in U.S. affairs. This has potential to affect NATO and U.N. affairs. Stoiber is more market oriented and open to a close relationship with the United States on a number of fronts.

Schroeder may be using the United States to deflect criticism from the unemployment crisis that has developed during his administration. Even if it is merely talk, we should be concerned by Schroeder's willingness to sport it so freely. His dogmatic approach triggers alarms that there may be rough times on the horizon for United States-German relations.

For better or worse, the alternative is Edmund Stoiber. If he can hold out long enough to unseat Chancellor Schoeder, the road ahead might be just a little less bumpy.

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