In October 1996, a mentally disturbed woman scratched the paint on 10 cars parked along the streets of Hamburg, Germany's freewheeling port city. The woman found herself before a judge named Ronald Barnabas Schill, who promptly sentenced her to two-and-a-half years in prison for her vandalism. Stunned, newspapers branded Schill Judge Merciless, and the sobriquet stuck through a sheaf of draconian sentences. Trading on his law-and-order image, Schill organized his own political party, the Law and Order Offensive, and won a stunning 19.4% of the vote in municipal elections last year. Now he is taking his party to two other states in the hope that his get-tough message will resonate with Germans beyond his hometown. "If I lived in Bavaria, I'd never have taken up politics and probably would have led a calm and happy life as a judge," Schill says. "I'm a product of Hamburg because of catastrophic circumstances."
Calling prosperous, well-scrubbed Hamburg a catastrophe may strike many as an exaggeration, but then Schill, 43, has forged his political career by squeezing the crime problem for all it's worth. He calls Hamburg the "German stronghold of crime," an image that shot around the world when it was discovered that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had plotted in the city. Schill made two campaign promises in last year's city elections: to cut crime by half in his first 100 days in office and to increase the police force by 2,000 officers. The judge, whose party now governs in coalition with the Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democrats, was named Hamburg's interior minister. But he has not made much progress on his promises.
Instead, Schill finds himself the focus of controversy. After a member of his party told a television interviewer that he had seen Schill use cocaine at his election victory celebration, the prosecutor's office opened a criminal investigation. Calling the charges "a perfidiously launched dirty campaign," Schill flew to Munich to take a drug test, which proved negative. But other problems are harder to shrug off. Mario Mettbach, a member of Schill's party who was appointed public- works minister, made the mistake of hiring his girlfriend as his personal assistant at a salary of $3,500 a month. When newspapers got wind of the story, the girlfriend resigned and Mettbach was forced to apologize. Recent opinion polls show support for Schill's party has slipped 5% from last year's election.
Most controversial of all may be Schill's use of crime statistics to portray Hamburg as a hotbed of criminality. The number of crimes reported in 2001 rose by 12.1% compared with 2000, but a single case of stock fraud involving 26,500 victims scattered throughout Germany accounted for most of the increase. In fact, breaking-and-entering cases declined by 19.3% last year and muggings by 27.2%, according to police statistics. Still, some 60% of voters surveyed in one poll found street crime the biggest issue in the election. "The old government didn't address problems like drug crime and street crime," says Reinhard Fallak, the police spokesman in Hamburg. "When someone comes along and talks about those issues, people vote for them."
Hamburg has hired only 250 new police officers, a fraction of Schill's promised 2,000. The new cops will take two-and-a-half years to complete their training. Hamburg has also added 250 security guards, who will be assigned to protect buildings such as the American consulate, freeing up another 250 police to work against crime. The city did find an innovative way of forcing drug addicts out of the main train station. In addition to deploying more police patrols, the station now plays endless repeats of Vivaldi at high volume to drive people away.
Doubts remain about Schill's chances of scoring another upset during elections in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt scheduled for April 21. Schill claims the Law and Order Offensive has 20% support there, but opinion polls give it just 2% of the vote. A party needs 5% to earn a place in the state legislature. "Schill's party is like a collection point for dissatisfied people," says Ralf Tils, a political scientist at the University of Lüneburg. "At the moment there's a potential for a far-right protest party. But Schill can't control it in all of Germany." In addition to Saxony-Anhalt, Schill's party is putting up a slate of candidates in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. But that election takes place on Sept. 22, the same day as German national elections, and the party could be swamped by national parliamentary campaigns. Another problem for Schill: the crime issue has little impact in eastern Germany, where unemployment is the main issue. Judge Merciless may have to find a new theme.