A few years ago, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder would not have needed to worry much about Remscheid. The industrial city of 120,000, perched on a hilltop in Germany's Ruhr region, is the kind of bedrock working-class community that always voted Social Democrat. It's a town where kebab stands and discount outlets line the main shopping promenade, where there are more Volkswagens on the street than BMWs, and few men wear neckties.
In short, this should be Schröder country. Yet his Social Democratic Party, or SPD, was trounced here in state elections in May, an historic shift that observers expect will be repeated on Sept. 18 when Christian Democrat Angela Merkel and Schröder face off nationally. And the shift is not confined to Remscheid. A poll in September by Berlin opinion researcher Forsa gives Merkel's Christian Democratic Union 42% of the national vote, vs. 34% for Schröder's SPD. That would make Merkel's party the strongest in Parliament, though it is unclear whether the CDU will have enough seats to form a coalition with the Free Democratic Party, its traditional ally. If not, Merkel could wind up at the head of an unwieldy coalition with the Social Democrats.
"CAN'T BE WORSE"
Assuming she does win power, Merkel is expected to pursue policies that working-class people normally loathe, such as cutting back job protections and trimming union influence. But that's not driving away people like Dirk Vogelsang, a 42-year-old woodworker who used to vote SPD. "At least [the CDU] may be able to get things moving. It can't be worse than it is now," he says.
Remscheid illustrates just how this migration in German political loyalty is taking place. The manufacturing economy still rules in Remscheid, whose fast-moving brooks powered the mills that helped make Germany an industrial power in the 19th century. Young people clamor for jobs at companies like Dirostahl, which employs 440, turning out forged parts such as axles for wind generators. And the unsuccessful job seekers? They can be seen sitting on park benches nursing bottles of beer, testimony to the city's 11.7% unemployment rate.
Now, after years of watching local employers like steelmaker ThyssenKrupp cut jobs, many people in the area are desperate for change. "As a single mom, how am I supposed to feed my kids?" says Barbara Klinke, an interior designer who has been out of work for four years. Like thousands of other frustrated Remscheiders, Klinke switched to the CDU in regional elections in May, helping Merkel's party win control of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia for the first time in 39 years and prompting a stunned Schröder to call early elections at the national level.
People like Klinke help explain why even working class and jobless people may switch to Merkel. But conversations with Remscheid voters also show that many are simply angry at Schröder for reforms that cut long-term jobless benefits -- reforms that Merkel is unlikely to reverse. Many voters appear to have only a vague understanding of the CDU's program. That could prove to be a problem for Merkel if she becomes Chancellor. Her reservoir of goodwill is not deep, and her support could fade quickly if she fails to spur the economy. "I don't know if anything will change," says Annetta Smigoc, 27, a homemaker who has not yet decided how she will vote.
Polls indicate that the charismatic Schröder's personal popularity still tops that of Merkel. But an overwhelming 70% are unhappy with the way Schröder's party is running the nation, and only 21% believe the SPD can restore job growth. Time and again Schröder has announced promising reforms, such as corporate tax cuts or private retirement savings programs, only to see them diluted or killed by leftists in his own party. The promised economic benefits never materialized. "Everyone's fed up," says Michael Sadowski, a 57-year-old who restores monuments.
The state election in May was widely seen as a referendum on Schröder's performance. "It was a bitter experience," says local SPD leader Jürgen Kucharczyk, who is running for Parliament in the district that includes Remscheid.
Underlying Remscheid's political transformation is a change in the local economy. Big employers such as Mannesmann, which once had a huge pipemaking plant in Remscheid (and was broken up after being taken over by Britain's Vodafone Group PLC in 2000), cut their unionized workforces -- the bedrock of SPD support -- by thousands. Since 1990 the number of manufacturing companies with more than 20 employees has fallen 16%, while the number of people they employ has plunged 44%.
Now Remscheid's main employers are smaller, specialized companies such as Kuli Hebezeuge, a maker of hoists and other equipment used to move heavy materials. At these Mittelstand companies, the unions are weaker and there is a personal relationship between workers and owners. Kuli's 100 workers have agreed to put in up to 42 hours per week, vs. 35 hours for union workers, in return for bonuses when business is good. "We've been able to stay competitive by making decisions directly with employees," says Heinz-Helmut Kempkes, Kuli managing director and owner.
The political consequence is that the workers at such companies have a more realistic view of the challenges facing their employers. Germany's Mittelstand companies have struggled to compete internationally because of the high cost of wages and benefits, and many have shifted production to Central Europe or Asia. Workers increasingly recognize that union demands for shorter hours and more pay ultimately kill jobs. They no longer automatically belong to the SPD's base. "The big companies have all disappeared or drastically cut their workforces," says Karl Heinz Humpert, chairman of the CDU delegation in the Remscheid city council.
Remscheid provides evidence, though, that the German economy still has lots of fight. Dirostahl is working at capacity. Its crankshafts and hydraulic cylinders are made to measure, often for industrial customers who need the products fast. "We're booming," says Dirostahl owner Karl Diederichs, whose ancestors were working metal in Remscheid as early as the 1500s. Diederichs has modest wishes for a Merkel government: "We're strongest when you leave us alone," he says. The political transformation of Remscheid and Germany means his wish no longer seems improbable.
By Jack Ewing in Remscheid, with bureau reports