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What was Schröder on?

wonders Arno Widmann, who saw the chancellor after a lost election proclaiming on TV that he would remain chancellor

As the election results were coming in on the evening of Septmeber 18, the candidates of all the major parties appeared on national television for a "Berlin Round". Despite the fact that the SPD were not ahead in the polls, Gerhard Schröder seemed convinced that he had won. His comments, expressions and body language suggested that it would be absurd to interpret the results any other way, which lead FDP candidate Guido Westerwelle to ask Schröder what he had been up to before the broadcast and commentator Arno Widmann to consider whether Schröder might have lost his marbles.

Those who saw Gerhard Schröder in his "Berlin Round" on ARD television last night, saw him on a high. One witnessed what is good about the Red-Green, or SPD-Green Party, coalition: as a social democrat, Gerhard Schröder played the rambling rebel on pot while Joschka Fischer was totally cool, as though he'd never heard the word joint. Gerhard Schröder was in a state of complete mental incapacity. He sat there and claimed he had won the elections, it was his responsibility to form a government. Anyone who claimed anything else was talking down social democracy.

Much has been written and said about politician's loss of reality. Yesterday evening, it was to be seen. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was beyond himself. His deputy suggested the broadcast be aborted on the basis that "nothing else will happen tonight". He might as well have taken Schröder by the hand and given him to two men in white medical coats.

That was the most ghastly thing that has ever been seen in German television. A paragraph of Schröder's campaign speech occurred to him and he regurgitated it. With exactly the same movements that he had used on the town squares. At this point, the viewer actually experienced fear. There is a moment in science fiction movies where the robot, who thus far has been pretending to be a man, exposes himself. This was such a moment: when Schröder began spooling out his campaign speech. It was evident that he was not thinking the sentences. It wasn't that he was saying them; they were saying him. A great moment in the history of the television medium and the history of the Federal Republic.

Schröder has always been called a "media chancellor". Yesterday evening, we witnessed the price that Schröder the person has paid for this distinction. He disappeared behind a mask and when he couldn't find the mask yesterday, he went crazy and when he found the mask again, we could recognise it as a mask. In that moment, Schröder the media chancellor died. If he has friends, they should take him to a sanatorium, get him off his high.

It was also a rush of power. And this made the show doubly awful. It showed that what mattered to Schröder was not the victory, let alone the one or other problem with which Germany is saddled. For Schöder, it's just about eliminating the enemy. He didn't care one bit that he had less votes than Angela Merkel. He was just delighted that she had been unable to achieve her goal. In the days when such categories still existed in psychology, Schröder would have been called a destructive personality.

That was the scariest thing about the evening. One glimpsed for a few minutes behind the wings and saw the difficulties – a bit too late – of the dauntless, sovereign statesman, always ready for a tackle. One saw a person simply beside himself with the thought that he had succeeded in outfoxing his opponent. If one sat down near this man in the subway, one would have changed seats and disembarked at the next station to inform the subway security. Inconceivable that such a man governed us and wants to continue to govern. Older contemporaries will be reminded of Franz Joseph Strauss' appearance in the "Bonn circle". He was drunk. He was babbling. But he was just a bit out of himself. He was the same Strauss as ever. Schröder was totally different.

Maybe everything was not quite as we think. Maybe Schröder knew something that nobody else knew at 8:30 p.m. Maybe the president of the pollster Forsa, Manfred Güllner, had told him what the wire services would only know an hour later: that the SPD might have three more seats than the CDU/CSU. Maybe Gerhard Schröder was celebrating this secret victory. He was triumphing. He was on a joy rush. But he couldn't tell anyone why he was so beside himself. That must drive you crazy. If you're a not a robot. If it was so, that he knew what we now know at 10 p.m., then this crazy "Berlin Round", this horrible performance showed us how correct we are with our interpretations and how wrong we can be with their interpretations. We understand Schröder's enthusiasm, his mood of delight and we understand that it must have nearly torn him apart, not being able to yell with glee. We find him in this sense - as a person, as a real person - fanstastic.

Then we realise that he can now finally do what he would have liked to do in 1998: form a grand coalition. Maybe he was also delighted about that. He doesn't need the Greens any more. He is no longer the chancellor of a shaky coalition that's constantly having to fight for a majority, but rather the chancellor of - almost – all Germans. That's the role that he likes to see himself in. In which he prefers to see himself – as do the great majority of Germans, one must add.

We don't know yet what the official results of the election will be, but it's possible that Schröder had been tipped off about the Forsa estimates of 9:37 p.m. when he flipped out publicly. That would shed new light on his performance.

A grand coalition under the leadership of the SPD – nobody expected that. Never. Not even in this paper. Those who can remember the beginning of Schröder's and Müntefering's campaign will recall now that neither of them bothered to mention the Greens, they both justified the elections with the need for a clear majority and a clear mandate.

If the Forsa estimates are correct, the SPD would in fact be the strongest party in the Parliament, and Schröder will have succeeded with his plan. A plan which he, just as with the Forsa results, could not talk about. If he had let it be known, he would have lost his core voters. And if – there are a lot of ifs in this article – everything happens the way that Schröder imagines it, then Gerhard Schröder is the greatest campaigner of all time, the most Machivillian politician that the Federal Republic has ever known. We bow to him and we're definitely going to vote him out of office next time. There's only so much lip that we can take.

We don't yet know what the results of these elections will be. But we know that in four years, at the latest, there is very likely to be a Red-Red-Green coalition, free of Schröder. By then the resentment of the collapse of the social state and unemployment will have circulated around to even the parties of the far right. That this has not yet happened is the great – too rarely acknowledged – fortune of these elections.

Editor's note: The results of the elections are not yet conclusive. In the week before the election, a candidate in Dresden died, so voting was postponed until October 2. Only then, will the final election results be will known.

This article originally appeared in the Berliner Zeitung on September 19, 2005.

Arno Widmann was born in 1948 and studied philosophy in Frankfurt with Theodor W. Adorno. A founder and editor-in-chief of die tageszeitung, he has also worked as senior editor of the German Vogue and arts editor of Die Zeit. Today he runs the opinion pages of the Berliner Zeitung. He has translated Umberto Eco, Curzio Malaparte and Victor Serge into German. His literary debut came with his 2002 novel "Sprenger".

Translation: nb

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