Three years ago, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder cynically used opposition to liberating Iraq to play an anti-American card just before elections in which he trailed his Christian Democratic opponents. He barely won a second term. Yesterday, facing a likely loss in elections in Germany's largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, his Social Democratic Party's union backers played another anti-American card, this time depicting U.S. investors as blood-sucking parasites. Social Democratic chairman Franz Muntefering compared hedge funds to "swarms of locusts." This time, the tactic failed. Mr. Schoeder's party went down to a stunning defeat, losing the largely working-class state, home to one out of five Germans, for the first time in nearly 40 years. Last night Mr. Schroeder announced he would hold national elections this fall, a year ahead of schedule.
North Rhine-Westphalia, centered on the industrial Ruhr region of northern Germany, is home to 18 million people and would be the sixth largest economy in the European Union if it were a separate nation. It is beset by many of the same problems that plague Germany as a whole. Since 1995, the German economy has been growing at a slower pace than any other European country except Moldova. Germany is increasingly losing jobs and investment to countries that do not have its crushingly high wages and social welfare overhead.
Many commentators will explain away the Social Democrats' overwhelming 45% to 37% defeat by claiming it represents discontent with Mr. Schroeder's tentative moves to curb welfare benefits and reform labor laws. But if that were the real issue, the government's left-wing partners, the Greens, would have gained votes. Instead they lost support, finishing with only 6%. The Christian Democrats' free-market partners, the Free Democrats, received the same proportion of the vote. Indeed, if yesterday's vote had primarily been a left-wing protest vote, a new party, the Election Alternative Work and Social Justice, formed by dissident members of Mr. Schroeder's party, would have won seats. Instead, they failed miserably.
In the wing is France? Beyond perhaps even India?