Boost to German left's poll hopes

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GERMANY'S opposition Social Democrats (SPD) yesterday hailed a change of leadership in Germany's most populous state as a major boost for its campaign to oust Chancellor Helmut Kohl in elections.

SPD officials said the nomination of Wolfgang Clement, a pro-business pragmatist, to run North Rhine-Westphalia would strengthen the hand of Gerhard Schroder, the party's candidate for the chancellorship in the September elections.

Johannes Rau, the 67-year-old North Rhine-Westphalia's state premier, announced on Monday night he would step down in June and hand over the reins to Mr Clement, 57, his economics minister.

"This change of generation is good. It will give us new impetus," said Ingrid Matthaeus-Meier, the centre-left party's finance policy spokeswoman.

Mr Schroder and Mr Clement see themselves in the mould of Tony Blair - social democrats who embrace economic modernisation but do not forget social justice.

"Wolfgang Clement will be a big help to Gerhard Schroder in the election ... It's about creating a new country and they both stand for that," said Peter Struck, SPD parliamentary whip.

Mr Kohl's conservatives said the change was simply proof that the state's coalition government of SPD and ecologist Greens was in trouble.

The move represents a changing of the guard from Mr Rau, an SPD elder statesman, to Mr Clement, a pragmatist.

Mr Schroder hopes to achieve a similar change in political culture by leading the Social Democrats to victory over Mr Kohl in September. Commentators said the handover in North-Rhine Westphalia increased pressure on Mr Kohl to consider passing on the baton to his own crown prince, Wolfgang Schauble. - Reuters, Bonn

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