Helmut Schmidt's re-election (as anticipated at time of writing) is a resounding tribute to the Chancellor's latter-day popularity. It is also a wry tribute to West Germany's democratic consensus exemplified this year in a dull campaign.
During the electioneering, Social Democratic Party (SPD) posters referred to Mr. Schmidt as the chancellor of peace and security. Posters from the opposition Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union called candidate Franz Josef Strauss a man of peace and freedom. The fine distinction was lost on voters, who discerned no real policy differences here -- and liked it that way.
[According to Reuters, early returns showed Mr. Schmidt's ruling alliance of Social and Free Democrats returning with an increased majority.]
West German citizens -- unlike their depression-ridden Weimar predecessors -- were looking neither for radical change nor for glory. They just want to preserve their present prosperity and lack of strife. Both candidates had to appeal to this conservative consensus. Both candidates had to promise continuity. In this competition Schmidt had proved himself; Strauss had not. Hence the dull campaign and hence the re-election of Chancellor Schmidt.
Mr. Schmidt, a professional politician from the time he left a British prisoner-of-war camp and got his economics degree at Hamburg University in the 1940s, started his career as an efficient pragmatist and parliamentary hatchet man for the Social Democratic Party.He drew nationwide notice in organizing flood relief in 1962 as interior senator of the city of Hamburg.
He was then propelled into the thankless job (for a Social Democrat who mistrusted German rearmament) of defense minister in the first SPD government in 40 years. He next advanced to the Finance Ministry, where he steered a conservative, low-inflation, high-productivity policy that helped West Germany weather the 1873 oil crisis better than most other industrialized countries.
When Chancellor Willy Brandt fell in 1974 over a spy scandal and a lack of interest in economic management, Mr. Schmidt was promoted to the top. He lacked Brandt's charisma and barely squeaked through his first general election as chancellor four years ago. He, too, was expected to fall momentarily; two votes against him in the Bundestag would have pushed him out. His authority was weak.
This weakness, moreover, reflected a general political malaise in the country. There was a mood of uncertainty and drift in the anticlimax after Brandt's dramatic detente with East Germany and the Soviet Union and his domestic reforms. There was a feeling of helplessness in the face of leftist anarchist terrorism that three times within a half year took prominent victims.
The third of these incidents, however, proved to be a turningpoint for Mr. Schmidt and for the nation. The chancellor risked everything on the tricky commando rescue of a hijacked plane in Mogadishu, Somalia in the fall of 1977; he was ready to resign if the operation failed.
When the storming of the plane succeeded brilliantly, West German self-confidence and public approval of Mr. Schmidt both soared. Polls would still give the chancellor 73 percent favorable ratings a year later. All talk of political malaise and Schmidt's fall evaporated.
At home the chancellor wielded his new authority to whip his party into tolerance of residual nuclear energy and the necessity of NATO deployment of new nuclear theater weapons on West German soil. Abroad he wielded his new authority -- sometimes through the close French-German partnership, sometimes through European Community policy consultations -- to secure European financial stability against the falling dollar through the new European monetary system and to keep political and financial lines open to Turkey during the US-Turkish freeze.
He also exercised his new stature to continue the European East-West dialogue and European-Mideast dialogue despite the US-Iranian and American-Soviet freezes after Iran's seizure of hostages and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In the process, West Germany emerged from its postwar renunciation of any leadership in foreign affairs to take initiatives more appropriate to Europe's strongest economic and military power. Mr. Schmidt was the first West German chancellor to sit as an equal with the US, Britain, and France in the big four summit at Guadaloupe in 1979. Schmidt was chancellor when a West German diplomat became president of the UN General Assembly for the first time in 1980.
Especiallty in contrast to the erratic leadership of the West under Jimmy Carter, Schmidt came to symbolize resolve, stability, and common sense to many. The influential London Economist, for one, begged Schmidt to take on real leadership of the West.
By the 1980 election, then, the SPD ran under Schmidt's pragmatic banner, not Schmidt under flaming SPD colors. The ideological crusades of the past -- the SPD's class struggle and opposition to West German rearmament and Western alliance, the conservatives' outrage at detente with the East -- were all ancient history. Schmidt may not have aroused the passions of a Brandt, either of affection or hate. But he reinforced voters' confidence that things are going well and that in a crisis Schmidt's cool technocrats would know what to do.