As Germany embarks on a round of state and local elections this weekend, the omens for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his ruling Social Democratic Party could scarcely appear worse.
Less than a year after defeating the Christian Democrats in national elections, Schroeder's party languishes as much as 15 points behind its main opponents in opinion polls. The Social Democrats seem likely to suffer serious setbacks in elections in five of Germany's 16 states, and may even surrender power in their traditional working-class bastions such as Dortmund and Cologne.
In this Sunday's voting, some polls suggest the Social Democrats could be ousted from government in the small southwestern state of Saarland and lose their absolute majority here in the eastern region of Brandenburg.
While the anticipated losses are not expected to provoke the collapse of Schroeder's alliance with the environmentalist Greens, they could paralyze the government's legislative program if the ruling coalition loses control of the upper house of Parliament--which reflects the power balance of the states.
Aides to Schroeder acknowledge they are bracing for what may be tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in their boss. After 10 months in office, Schroeder's approval rating has plummeted to 23 percent from 54 percent, and he now ranks near the bottom of the list of prominent politicians most admired by the public.
"No German government leader has ever lost as much public support in so short a time frame as Schroeder," said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling institute. "It usually takes several years to fall so steeply in public esteem."
The rapid decline of the Social Democrats owes much to the nasty feud raging between young modernizers who back Schroeder's business-friendly policies and the traditional party base of left-wing ideologues and labor unionists who are fighting against any curtailment of the welfare state. The government plans to enact the biggest budget cuts in postwar German history, projecting $16 billion in savings that would be achieved largely by freezing pensions and unemployment payments.
While some signs point to a stronger economy in the coming months, Schroeder has failed to deliver on promises to reduce unemployment, which still hovers above 10 percent. In pockets of eastern Germany, where four of the state elections will take place, as much as 30 percent of the population is jobless.
The sense of disillusionment pervades Brandenburg, which surrounds the capital, Berlin. In last year's election, the state voted heavily for Schroeder. This year, dismay with mainstream parties is so acute that many voters may be tempted to cast protest ballots in favor of radical fringe parties, such as the Party of Democratic Socialism, the former communists on the left, and the German Peoples Union (DVU) on the right.
Gerhard Frey, the right-wing publishing mogul who leads and bankrolls the DVU, is hoping to duplicate his startling success last year when the extremist party captured nearly 13 percent of the vote in the neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt.
The rise of the far right in eastern Germany has been largely attributed to the refusal of the previous communist regime to confront the Nazi legacy. And the profound frustrations rampant among young people struggling to find work while coping with an unfamiliar market-oriented society have created a fertile breeding ground for extremist causes.
Although support for far-right politics among disaffected eastern youths has been prevalent for years, law enforcement authorities say they are disturbed by a resurgence of violent, neo-Nazi tactics. After leveling off in the mid-'90s, racist attacks against African and Arab immigrants have resumed with a vengeance.
Brandenburg Interior Minister Alwin Ziel said 33 acts of serious far-right violence have occurred this year, a rise of 50 percent. He said police have identified more than 500 hard-core militants who are considered threats to public order and several hundred others who abet their activities.
Ziel said the extremists have exploited the anguish of unemployed youths and the failure of moderate politicians to take effective action in redressing their grievances. "We will only succeed in thwarting the far-right extremists in the long term if all the democratic parties pool their efforts," he said.
CAPTION: Gerhard Schroeder has failed to deliver on promises to reduce 10 percent unemployment.