It was with a weak smile but no comment that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder arrived at the daily meeting of the Social Democrats – the day after he had announced he wanted to call an early election.
The day before – May 22 – the SPD had lost regional elections in North Rhine Westphalia – a stronghold for the party since the 1960s. “The support of citizens is vital for the success of the reform programme,” said Schroeder. “With the bitter election result for my party in Rhine-Westphalia, the political support for the continuation of our reforms has been called into question.” The result was seen as a rejection of Agenda 2010 – the programme of reforms which was the cornerstone of the coalition between the SPD and the Greens. Passed by an overwhelming majority in both parliamantary chambers in December 2003, the combination of austerity measures and social cuts is extremely unpopular with the public. There was a wave of street protests last year. Many were angry that the benefits they had grown used to thanks to huge economic growth between 1960 and 1970 were apparently no longer affordable. Hit hard by unemployment, the German state has sunk into debt, which is reportedly climbing at around 1,800 euros a second. In 2002, however, Schroeder managed to win the support of the electorate in the general election. He had assured them that the aim of his work was work for everyone. Despite initially trailing in the polls, Schroeder’s pragmatic approach, opposition to invading Iraq and management of the huge numbers of people from the former East won him the election. But this time the situation is different. Germany seems immune to his charisma and his personal ratings are now lower than those of his conservative rival.