Fischer's Winning Hand

Long before he became German Foreign Minister, Green Party leader Joschka Fischer joked to an interviewer about how he would wrack his brain trying to figure out some way he could get to be Chancellor. But the onetime left-wing rebel never could dream up a plausible scenario.

One landed in his lap on Sept. 22. After the Green Party gathered a surprise 8.6% of the vote in national elections, Fischer enjoys status and influence second only to his nominal boss. In fact, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder owes his job to Fischer and the Greens, without whom he would lack a parliamentary majority. True, Fischer's ascension to the top job is still a long shot. But the daily Die Welt even bannered the vote as "Fischer's Victory," while Bild newspaper ran a digitally manipulated photo that blended Schröder's and Fischer's faces into one. "Now we're governed by Joschka Schröder," said the headline.

Some of the Green votes no doubt came from Germans fearful of war with Iraq. But Fischer gets plenty of the credit, too, because of his stellar performance as Foreign Minister during Schröder's first term. The victory was confirmation that voters believe the Greens, with their roots in the 1960s protest movement, have become responsible grownups.

The surprising thing is that while they retain some of their lefty views, the Greens' economic program is more free-market than anything the Social Democrats or Christian Democrats are offering. The Green platform calls for relaxed job protections, fewer subsidies, and less bureaucracy--all the things corporations want. "They tried in the last three years to liberalize the labor market but were always blocked by the Social Democrats," says Goldman, Sachs & Co. economist Dirk Schumacher.

If not many people know about the Greens' economic policy, it's because the party has always focused on the issues most dear to their constituents, such as the environment and health care. But now, the economy is the key issue. Already, the Greens have been arguing behind closed doors with the Social Democrats for the loosening of job protections as a way to encourage hiring.

But there are other issues, notably Iraq, that will distract Fischer from the economy. As Foreign Minister, he is largely responsible for patching up relations with the U.S. He's given good odds to do so. For example, while Germany will officially oppose an attack on Iraq, Fischer has offered to help indirectly by taking the lead in Afghanistan peacekeeping.

Fischer isn't the only Green to have won a following. Agriculture Minister Renate Kunast, who has emphasized consumer protection, also regularly scores well in polls. Kerstin Müller, head of the Greens' delegation in Parliament, has shown economic expertise. But there is no one at the top of the party who has made the economy their central focus. If the Greens still dream of fielding a Chancellor someday, they need someone of Fischer's clout on economic issues.

Corrections and Clarifications Because of a pre-press error in our European Edition, ``Fischer's winning hand`` (European Business, Oct. 7) ran a photo of George Bush instead of Joschka Fischer.

By Jack Ewing in Berlin

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