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Handling of Germany's Flood Crisis Could Impact Upcoming Election - 2002-08-21


With Germany's elections only one month away, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is hoping that his firm handling of the devastating flood crisis in eastern and southern parts of the country will boost his chances of winning a second term. Mr. Schroeder's Social Democrats are trailing the opposition Christian Democrats in the polls, but the chancellor is being given credit for showing strong leadership and coming up with a way to pay for the devastation.

Until last week, Mr. Schroeder's chances for a second term looked pretty dim. Even though he is personally more popular than his conservative rival, Edmund Stoiber, the Social Democrats have been lagging behind the Christian Democrats in national polls by an average of seven percentage points all year long.

Then, torrential rains and raging flood waters poured into Germany and gave the chancellor what some analysts are describing as a second chance.

Political scientist Everhard Holtmann, of Halle University in eastern Germany, says Mr. Schroeder's capable handling of the floods and their aftermath just might help him distract voters' attention from what they perceive as his government's main weakness: high unemployment.

"In situations of chaos and catastrophe, people prefer a strong and decisive executive. And if Schroeder can prove to be such a resolute head executive, perhaps he may benefit from it," Mr. Holtmann said.

However, Mr. Holtmann says that the chancellor will only pick up votes if he is not perceived as using the floods for political gain. Instead, he argues, Mr. Schroeder needs to appear statesmanlike.

The chancellor tried to be just that last Sunday, when he hosted an emergency conference in Berlin and invited the heads of government of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, countries that were also hard hit by the floods. Mr. Schroeder made an appeal for European solidarity.

"The damages and people's suffering concern all the countries affected," he said. "So we will continue working from tomorrow to make unified Europe a place of solidarity."

Mr. Schroeder's challenger, Edmund Stoiber, was on vacation when the floods hit but quickly tried to make up for lost ground by touring some of the effected areas Mr. Stoiber also attempted to seize the initiative by demanding that the government fund the cost of cleaning up the damage in spite of its current budget crunch.

"We expect the German government to install a special flood catastrophe 2002 fund this year to cope with the damages caused by the floods. We demand the amount to be $2 billion euros [dollars]," he said.

But Mr. Schroeder had another card up his sleeve. On Monday, he proposed delaying tax cuts scheduled to come into force next year to free up money to help pay for the flood damage. The move would give the government nearly $7 billion to help defray the costs of the clean up, without increasing the budget deficit.

Normally, delaying tax cuts so close to an election might be considered political suicide. But analysts say Mr. Schroeder is gambling on a huge outpouring of solidarity all across Germany with the flood victims.

A poll published in the magazine Stern this week showed the Social Democrats had gained a percentage point while the Christian Democrats had dropped one. But the Social Democrats and their Green Party allies are still trailing the Christian Democrats and their traditional partners, the Free Democrats, by three points.

Mr. Schroeder is hoping to make up the difference among the normally fickle voters of the former East Germany. He is also hoping that German voters' sympathy for the flood victims will override whatever frustration they may feel at the absence of those promised tax cuts.

But some analysts caution against predicting that the floods could swing the election for the chancellor. Although the poll that appeared in Stern says a majority think Mr. Schroeder's performance during the floods was better than that of Mr. Stoiber, 70 percent said the crisis would not influence their vote on September 22.

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