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Floods become a test of leadership

Electioneering is on hold in Germany but influence is still being exerted under the surface
Electioneering is on hold in Germany but influence is still being exerted under the surface  

By CNN's Jim Boulden

DESSAU, Germany (CNN) -- With German elections only a month away, the cost of the clean-up and the way it is being handled could become a political hot potato.

The waters came pouring into Germany just as voters were taking a closer look at the two main candidates for chancellor, incumbent Gerhard Schroeder and conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber.

Schroeder cancelled electioneering as the early signs showed Germany would not escape the devastation caused by torrential rains and raging flood waters.

No time for politicking during a crisis maybe. But with about 11 people dead and tens of thousands of voters forced from their homes in Germany, Schroeder is facing his biggest test as chancellor.

Professor Everhard Holtmann, of the Martin Luther University, said: "In situations of chaos and catastrophe, people prefer a strong and decisive executive.

Grimma, Germany, faces the destruction with a will to rebuild. (August 19)

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The Czech Republic begins its clean-up. (August 19)

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Workers try to stave off the threat from the Elbe and Mulde rivers. (August 19)

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Lost hippo found  
Damage estimate: $7bn 
Special report: Floods ravage Europe 
Severely hit areas 
Are you affected? E-mail stories and read others
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Dresden weather  

"And if Schroeder can prove to be such a resolute head of executive perhaps he may benefit from it."

The disaster has already diverted the focus away from Schroeder's error-prone campaign allowing the media-savvy incumbent a chance to lead the nation and form a distraction from rising unemployment.

Other problems he can hide are an ugly regional party funding scandal, the firing of his defence minister and the messy removal of Deutsche Telekom's chairman.

The professor adds though that Schroeder will only pick up voters if he does not appear to use the floods for political gain and instead appears statesmanlike.

The chancellor may have been helped by hosting Sunday's emergency flood conference in Berlin with the heads of other states hit by the historic floods, including Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- but not Russia where the bulk of the deaths have occurred.

Schroeder said: "One thing moved us all, the damages and the peoples' suffering concerns all the countries affected. So we will continue working from tomorrow to make unified Europe a place of solidarity."

His chief election rival, Stoiber, is not seen as personally popular as Schroeder but his party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), has been ahead in national polls by up to seven percentage points for most of the year.

Stoiber was caught off guard by the disaster at first, being away on holiday, but he has been trying to catch up.

He said: "We expect the German government to install a special flood catastrophe 2002 fund this year to cope with the damages caused by the floods. We demand the amount to be two billion euros."

Schroeder announced on Monday that next year's planned tax cuts worth 6.9 billion euros ($6.8 billion) would be delayed to help meet the cost of the reconstruction.

In-depth: Germany Decides 2002 

In the university town of Halle in eastern Germany there is no flood damage and no evacuees. The election here is about the weak economy and high unemployment -- about one in 10 Germans is without a job.

But for now, the floods dominate talk. One resident said: "I think that after this crisis there will be created thousands of new jobs that will help the chancellor.

"Either the (chancellor's Social Democrats party) SPD, or the green party or the CDU can profit from this dilemma for the election campaign.

"I think for the CDU it will be quite difficult because they have never had the ecology in their programme. But at the moment they see that it's important now."

The election is just five weeks away -- September 22 -- and many people in this part of the country will still be cleaning up come polling day.

The question for many voters in the meantime is not how Chancellor Schroeder is handling the crisis, but how he will pay for the clean-up.

Schroeder says much of the money will come from the European Union but observers say tax rises cannot be ruled out -- in addition to the tax cuts delay.


• Floods spark chemical spill fear
August 17, 2002
• Dresden floods reach all-time high
August 16, 2002
• Huge cost of Czech floods
August 16, 2002
• Dresden evacuated as waters rise
August 15, 2002
• 'Floods took away my livelihood'
August 14, 2002
• Prague faces 'worst moment'
August 14, 2002
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