Confident Kohl sets re-election agenda

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The Independent Online
Chancellor Helmut Kohl entered the last stretch of his record- breaking reign yesterday bursting with confidence. Savouring the spectacle of his opponents in disarray, Mr Kohl in effect launched the campaign to re-elect him exactly a year from now, with an agenda that has just driven the Social Democrats' battle bus off the road.

"Fighting crime belongs to the top one or two issues that will be focused on in the election," Mr Kohl said in an interview with a Berlin radio station. "The public's fears and making our streets safe have to be taken seriously, even if they are sometimes exaggerated ... People want more police on the streets and are calling for a stronger state."

It was this very theme of law and order - with a bit of foreigner-bashing thrown in - that the Social Democrats were hoping to use for their election campaign. But the trial run last week, in regional polls in Hamburg, rebounded disastrously. The SPD plunged to its lowest share of the vote in the city-state, leaving its local leader, Henning Voscherau, with no option but to fall on his sword.

The grassroots, silently dismayed by New SPD's populist turn, have since risen against the leadership, and served notice that they will never again support such a campaign. The Hamburg fiasco has thus neutralised the only SPD politician deemed to stand a chance against Chancellor Kohl: the Lower Saxony Prime Minister, Gerhard Schroder. If he ever makes it to the starting line, Mr Schroder will no longer be able to push his favourite law and order slogans.

German politics has therefore reverted to type: the right talking tough on crime and the mainstream left dithering. The perception that the SPD is in trouble has already filtered through into opinion polls. After a year of commanding lead, the SPD has fallen behind Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats. In truth, both parties appear to be locked on a gentle curve of eternal decline, but the arithmetic of the multi-party system still favours Mr Kohl. A year from now, the Chancellor will go to the voters seeking a fifth term, and on present evidence there is no one to stop him.

Germans seem resigned to the fact that change will come only after that. No chancellor has ever been ousted by the voters, but ruling parties have a strong tradition of dumping their leaders in mid-term. To avoid that ignominy, Mr Kohl has promised to hand over the reins to his lieutenants after the launch of European monetary union in 1999. A year before the elections, this remains the likeliest scenario for Bonn's changing of the guards.

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