Flooding makes a delight out of crisis for Schroder

GERMANY: Next month's general election in Germany could be the first to be decided by an act of God

GERMANY: Next month's general election in Germany could be the first to be decided by an act of God. Already it looks like the flood waters that surged through the eastern part of the country have turned the tide for the government. From Derek Scally, in Berlin

For the first time in months, the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) is the most popular party in Germany with 40 per cent support, according to a new poll. Without doubt the dramatic reversal of fortune is down to the Chancellor, Mr Gerhard Schröder, and his crisis management skills.

He will hope to build on his party's poll success tonight in the first of two televised debates with Mr Edmund Stoiber, his conservative challenger in next month's election.

Both candidates know how much there is to play for: one in two German voters has yet to decide how to vote.


Until last week, pollsters were predicting that despite Mr Schröder's superior television skills, Mr Stoiber would drag him over the coals during the debates on the most important campaign issue, the economy. No amount of media savvy can hide four million unemployed and stunted economic growth, they said. Then the rains came and before the conservatives knew what had happened, Mr Schröder was living their election slogan: "Time for action."

A day after floods hit the town of Grimma, a grim-faced Mr Schröder was pictured in his wellies sloshing around the town, talking to locals who had lost everything. The Chancellor came into his own on that visit showing an authenticity he has lacked for a long time, helped in so small part by the knowledge that natural disasters always help the political incumbent.

For Mr Stoiber, however, the floods reinforced his image as a bloodless technocrat. He took a week to fly into a flood-hit area only to wander aimlessly through bone-dry streets in brand-new wellies like a politician looking for a baby to kiss. Small wonder, then, that one in two voters believe Mr Schröder makes the better Chancellor, while only one-fifth of the electorate back Mr Stoiber.

Mr Schröder didn't just win the publicity war surrounding the floods, he also ran rings around the opposition in the "what-comes-next" round.

Within days he postponed next year's tax cuts to conjure up €7 billion in aid. By opting for painless solidarity - using money voters didn't yet have - he avoided alienating them ahead of the election.

If a week is a long time in politics, then a month is an eternity, and the SPD's current winning streak could be short-lived.

Mr Stoiber will be hoping to bring unemployment back onto the agenda during tonight's television debate while Mr Schröder will hope to keep attention on the floods. But no matter how convincing his performance, he knows that if his government wins a second term it will be the floods wot won it.