A German Rock Thrower Hits The Bull's Eye

Former activist Fischer is earning kudos as foreign minister

In 1976, 28-year-old Joseph Martin Fischer, known as "Joschka," was making his living as a Frankfurt cab driver. After 10 years as a self-described revolutionary, street fighter, squatter, and leftist agitator, Fischer had given up on politics. He looked destined to become a sort of German Abbie Hoffman, a fleetingly famous activist who fades into obscurity.

Instead, in a nimble transformation, Fischer is back in the thick of German politics, having drawn on his energy and popularity to rise rapidly after joining the Green Party in 1982. He's now the best-known Green politician and is Foreign Minister in the five-month-old coalition government of Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroder--the first time Greens have ever shared power at the federal level. Wearing dark Hugo Boss suits, he hobnobs these days with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. He has won the respect of many in Germany's diplomatic corps. Even the nation's staid business and financial community considers him one of the ablest politicians of his generation. "I like this fellow," says Hans-Olaf Henkel, head of the Federation of German Industries.

But Fischer also is a man on a political knife-edge, who could make or break the Schroder coalition. Although he is one of the few bright spots in a government that has largely foundered since last September's election, his party has proved a huge liability. Most Germans hate the program of Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin, a Green activist and Fischer rival who wants to phase out nuclear power. Anger at the Greens is one reason a Social Democratic (SPD)-Green coalition lost five seats in state elections in February in Hesse, Fischer's home state, costing Schroder his majority in the upper house.

The crucial test is whether Fischer can pull his party back to the center as he often has in the past. It's key to the success of the Schroder coalition. It's also key to Fischer's survival as a power player; there are persistent rumors that if the Greens continue to be a problem, Schroder will form a new government with the Free Democrats, a free-market-oriented party that was part of Helmut Kohl's coalition. The Greens polled only 6.7% in the last federal election and the Free Democrats only 6.2%, but having either as a partner would maintain Schroder's majority in the key lower house.

Interestingly, some very conservative businesspeople are rooting for the former rock-thrower, who once did six days jail time for allegedly trespassing and resisting arrest. That's partly because Fischer shows signs of being an efficient Foreign Minister. His vehement attacks on humans rights abuses in China and Serbia have made headlines. But in most respects--from tight ties to the U.S. to continuing trade relations with China--he has pledged continuity with Kohl's policies, which had broad business support. Although the Green Party is officially pacifist, Fischer has even thrown his weight behind the deployment of troops in places like Kosovo--while also riling the U.S. by suggesting that NATO renounce first use of nuclear weapons.

REALO-POLITIK. As Foreign Minister, Fischer has little impact on Schroder's economic policies, but some business leaders like the way he has pulled the Greens to the center on tax issues. On the campaign stump last fall, Fischer hammered the theme of cutting the cost of labor for German industry. The Greens did support a huge hike in gasoline prices. But at the insistence of Fischer's "realo" (short for realistic) wing, the party also backed using the money to pay for cuts in the top income tax rate and reductions in social welfare charges paid by employees. Even Martin Kohlhaussen, CEO of giant Commerzbank, termed the tax aspects of the Greens' platform "quite reasonable." But Schroder opted for a smaller energy tax hike--and a smaller income tax cut, too.

In the U.S., Fischer's past would have long since torpedoed his career. He once translated pornography to make extra money and has admitted youthful flirtations with way-out political philosophies: everything from Maoism to backing the Islamic revolution of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. And he remains flamboyant. After his third marriage broke up a few years ago, he shed 77 pounds by giving up liquor and meat and taking up marathon running. Now 50, he created a sensation last November by showing up at the annual press ball with a new girlfriend, a twenty-something apprentice journalist.

Fischer's biggest problem is that the Green Party may be virtually unmanageable. It's really two parties--Fischer's realos and a radical environmentalist wing represented by people like Trittin--held together by the need to poll 5% of the vote to have a shot at power. Under pressure from Schroder and no doubt Fischer, Trittin has backed down from his fast-track schedule to phase out nuclear power. But Fischer is in a constant battle to keep radical elements at bay. His leverage: The Greens want to stay in power and they know he's their best strategist.

Fischer has a chance to become a permanent force by making his party what the Free Democrats have traditionally been: The coalition partner of choice for either the SPD or Christian Democrats. But to accomplish that, the former streetfighter has to keep his party headed toward the middle.

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