The first 2002 election campaign in which George W. Bush’s desire to attack Iraq became a major issue did not involve Republicans and Democrats. It was not even held in the United States. But it can still be said that Bush – and his proposed war–came out on the losing end of the contest.

German voters on Sunday gave a narrow, yet clear, mandate to the red-green coalition of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The dramatic come-from-behind win for Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its coalition partner, the Green Party, followed a campaign in which the chancellor promised to withhold German support for a US-led war against Iraq.

“Under my leadership, Germany will not participate in military action,” declared Schröder, in a blunt statement that distinguished the chancellor from Edmund Stoiber, the standard bearer of the conservative Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union (CDU-CSU) alliance that sought to oust the four-year-old SPD-Green government.

“There’s still a big danger of war, and that is a point where we really have a differing opinion,” Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Schröder’s Green Party ally, said of the governing coalition’s differences with the Stoiber camp. “In no case should we escalate,” Fischer said of Germany.

German election analysts said Schröder’s outspoken and consistent stance regarding Iraq helped his party eliminate a nine-point deficit in the polls and pull ahead of the opposition in the closing days of the campaign. In Sunday’s voting The SPD-Green coalition won more than 47 percent of the vote and a majority of seats in the German Bundestag, the lower house of parliament. (The SPD was winning 37.6 percent of the vote in late returns, while the Greens earned 8.6 percent–the strongest national election finish in the party’s 22-year history. The Greens are generally viewed as pulling the coalition toward a more anti-war stance.)

Another four percent of the vote went to the left-wing Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which took an even more militantly anti-war stance than Schröder’s coalition. It appears that the PDS won several Bundestag seats in its east German strongholds, but is not expected to be a part of the coalition.

The likely coalition of Stoiber’s CDU-CSU alliance and the smaller Free Democratic Party was taking 46 percent of the vote.

Stoiber saw his poll lead erode after he promised to leave open the option of using military force to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. “We Europeans must co-ordinate our interests and bring them to bear with the United States,” Stoiber said, while accusing Schröder of “poisoning” German’s relations with the United States.

Stoiber’s rhetoric was echoed–sometimes word-for-word–by Bush administration aides and allies, especially after German Justice Minister Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin allegedly suggested Bush was blowing threats from Iraq out of proportion in order to divert attention from domestic economic problems in the United States. “That’s a popular method. Even Hitler did that,” Daeubler-Gmelin supposedly told German trade unionists. She said the Hitler reference was a misquote, but the incident rocked the Schröder campaign in its final days.

The Bush administration and its Congressional allies, fearing a Schröder win, sent increasingly strong pro-Stoiber signals as the election approached. Two days before the election, US Sen. Jesse Helms, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said, “The German chancellor has damaged German relations with the United States in ways that cannot be easily repaired.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, spoke of the suddenly “poisoned atmosphere” of US-German relations and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called off a planned meeting with the German defense minister.

Yet, Schröder stuck to his anti-war theme.

The chancellor closed his campaign in the city of Rostock, telling a cheering crowd of 5,000: “The Middle East and Iraq need a lot of new peace, but they don’t need a new war.” Refusing to bow to the pressure from Washington, Schröder said, “Fundamental issues of German policy will be decided in Berlin and nowhere else.”

The chancellor’s decision to make his differences with the Bush administration the focal point of his final pre-election message reinforced the view that he was running as much against the US president’s military schemes as he was against Stoiber. Polls indicated that a wide majority of Germans opposed their German military involvement in a US-led war on Iraq.

Ironically, the Bush administration may have handed Schröder the issue that enabled the Chancellor to retain office. Like the US, Germany is experiencing a serious economic slowdown. Joachim Raschke, a politics professor at Hamburg University, said the debate over Iraq–along with Schröder’s solid response to summer flooding of German cities–helped to eclipse a dialogue about economic issues that might have benefited Stoiber and the CDU-CSU.

This was not the turn-of-events the Bush administration anticipated last summer, when it began cranking up the war rhetoric. White House political advisor Karl Rove had signaled that he wanted to make national security a front-burner issue prior to this fall’s US elections–since polls showed that a focus on domestic economic issues would harm Republican chances in the fight for control of the US House and Senate. But Rove and his Bush team apparently failed to calculate the prospect that a domestic political gambit could deal the Bush camp a serious foreign policy blow.

Among traditional US allies in Europe, Schröder has been the most outspoken critic of the military action against Iraq. But, on the same day that the German chancellor was winning a new term at least in part on the strength of his anti-war stance, a member of the British Cabinet was breaking ranks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair–Bush’s staunchest European ally.

“We cannot have another Gulf war,” declared British Secretary of State for International Development Clair Short, in a statement that illustrating the rise of anti-war sentiment within Blair’s Labour Party. “We cannot have the people of Iraq suffering again. They have suffered too much. That would be wrong.”