Eastern promise the key for SPD

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The Independent Online
SMARTING FROM their defeat in Bavaria, Germany's Social Democrats switched their campaign to the impoverished east yesterday as they tried to shore up their narrowing lead.

Gerhard Schroder's party is still ahead of Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats. But on the evidence of two sets of polls published since Sunday's right- wing triumph in Bavaria, the left is leading only by a whisker. Gone are the days when Mr Schroder was sitting on a 12-point lead. The gap has been whittled down to three points, and is closing fast. At this rate Mr Kohl will be jogging past Mr Schroder on the home stretch early next week.

To avoid that fate, the Social Democrats took out adverts in all the main newspapers in eastern Germany yesterday, their most promising hunting ground. It was the east that helped to elect Mr Kohl in the past two elections, and it is the easterners who feel most let down by his policies. All that Mr Schroder has to do is tap into this discontent, and he is home and dry.

That should not be too difficult in this region, even if the left-wing vote has to be split there with the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successors to the old communist regime. Bavaria has shown, however, that too many Social Democrat sympathisers remain just that. They detest Chancellor Kohl, but do not like Mr Schroder enough to vote for him.

At the SPD headquarters in Bonn, the strategists are scratching their heads. Mr Schroder has banished all things remotely controversial from his speeches, so as not to offend the left. At the same time, he showered voters of the so-called "New Centre" with platitudes, and let his aides preach his pro-business gospel to that audience.

The result is confusion. Some traditional Social Democrats have been alienated, while the battle for the "New Centre" has not gone as well as planned. The secret weapon, Jost Stollmann, a millionaire entrepreneur, who had been picked as shadow economics minister, has turned out to be a dud. Mr Stollmann stammered so painfully and made so many gaffes in front of the cameras, that he had to be withdrawn.

So back to the poor, especially those in eastern Germany, where 20 per cent of the voters live. That is also where Mr Kohl's army is heading, fortified by the triumphant troops of Bavaria.

Edmund Stoiber, the conservative Bavarian Prime Minister responsible for the rout of the Social Democrats, has cancelled all engagements at home in his haste to the east. Mr Stoiber has been severely critical of Mr Kohl's feeble campaign, and will now be adding a fair measure of aggression.

In the last week before the vote, the campaign is bound to turn dirty. The Christian Democrats have already produced posters reminding voters of Mr Schroder's three divorces. Now there are signs that the arrest of the former leftist terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein is also to be exploited.

How Klein came to be arrested in France last week at such a judicious moment of the campaign is a subject of heated debate. Suffice to say that he was connected to prominent Greens, the Social Democrats' likely coalition partners. In a potential Schroder government, there would be at least three people who do not want to be reminded of this part of German history. One of them is Mr Schroder himself, who as a lawyer defended an urban terrorist. The pro-Kohl media have seized the terrorist issue with relish. Some of the mud is no doubt sticking.