Feel-good factor and fear of the unknown keep Kohl in the hunt

Despite trailing badly in the polls, Germany's veteran chancellor can't be written off yet, writes Imre Karacs
THE Helmut Kohl roadshow was kitted out with new amplifiers last week to cope with the unexpectedly high volume of hiss emanating from the audience. That was in the east, the scene of famous victories, where the last two elections had been fought and won.

Mr Kohl will not win there again in three weeks' time: that much is already certain. The slump in the Chancellor's popularity is such that even when he swept into conservative Bavaria, the Christian Democrats' stronghold, the new amplifiers travelled with him.

Gerhard Schroder, the opposition leader, also did a few gigs in Bavaria, entertaining customers at sweaty beer tents and windswept marketplaces with a programme of pop music and populist sloganeering. All he had to pit his hoarse voice against was crowds chanting his name. Mr Schroder's Social Democrat Party will, of course, lose in Bavaria as certainly as it will romp home in the east. But if the body language of the beer-lovers and the polls are anything to go by, even in the deep south the SPD is set to gain votes.

Many of the roles of previous elections are being reversed in the polls of 1998. Four years ago, the SPD was the party of the poor, of empty coffers, weighty promises and shambolic organisation. Their leading candidates did not exactly set the world on fire either. Does anyone remember Rudolf Scharping, the man who took a tilt at Mr Kohl in 1994?

Now, for some inexplicable reason, the SPD is loaded, set to spend about DM100m (pounds 34.5m) on its bid for power. That is a figure from the Christian Democrats, who claim to have only half that at their disposal. Whatever the truth, the SPD campaign is far more slick than Mr Kohl's lumbering title defence. Being herded into position and forced to listen for an hour or more to the Chancellor boasting about his single-handed victory against com- munism is not everybody's cup of tea. Especially if the discourse comes out of turbo-charged loudspeakers.

How effective Mr Schroder's happenings will prove against Mr Kohl's ghetto- blaster approach remains to be seen, but on the surface the challenger's task is very simple. So slender was Mr Kohl's last victory in 1994 that the SPD now needs to win the equivalent of only 211 votes in every 200,000- strong constituency to wipe out the government's majority. No poll has put the Social Democrats at less than three points ahead of Mr Kohl's party. In British terms, that amounts to a near-eight point swing since four years ago.

But if the numbers are on Mr Schroder's side, history is not. Never since the foundation of the Federal Republic has a leader of the opposition toppled the incumbent at elections. Until now, political regicide was the method of ousting chancellors past their sell-by date. Palace coups got rid of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Schmidt, among others. Mr Kohl hints at leaving the stage voluntarily mid-term, but most voters can see that he too, would have to be forcibly prised away from his desk.

While tradition would suggest that Mr Kohl will survive the election, statisticians have also discovered that no incumbent chancellor has ever been so far behind so close to polling day. Either way, history will be made on 27 September.

In the light of all these precedents, Mr Schroder has adopted what German commentators have derided as the "Berti Vogts approach to politics". Anybody who saw the German football team, coached by Mr Vogts, in the World Cup will know exactly what that means: strong on defence, nothing creative up front. Analysts have yet to work out whether Mr Schroder is sitting on a one-nil lead or a nil-all draw.

His game plan, however, is fairly clear. Mr Schroder is youthful in comparison to his opponent: 54 against 68. He is also untainted by power, at least in Bonn. When Mr Kohl reiterates his list of achievements during 16 years in power - German re-unification and peace in Europe - it is easy to accuse the Chancellor, as Mr Schroder did during a parliamentary debate on Thursday, of "living in the past".

The rest of the Schroder package is deliberately user-friendly: a promise of more "social justice" to keep traditional SPD voters, a mouthful of Blairite slogans aimed at the "new centre" he is trying to woo, plus a dash of compassion for good effect.

Mr Kohl has yet to find the appropriate response. The elder statesman, billed as "World Class for Germany" on election posters, tried last week to pose as a guarantor of stability in critical times. But his party strategists are split on whether the Russian crisis and conflict in Kosovo could be exploited for their purposes.

The Christian Democrats have done better on the economy. With growth at more than 2.5 per cent and unemployment about to dip below the magic four million any month now, the "time for change" mood has lately been tempered by that rare German sentiment: optimism. Last week, the government announced tax cuts matching those promised by Mr Schroder pfennig for pfennig. As a result, it is respectable once again to admit to being a closet Kohl voter.

With three weeks to go and only three points in it, this promises to be the greatest election cliff-hanger in Germany since Hitler became chancellor in 1933, even if the stakes are not quite so high this time. If they vote with their hearts, Germans will flock to Mr Schroder, a lovable rogue with many divorces behind him who promises fun but also uncertainty.

If they are guided by the cardinal virtue of vernunft - a word that means so much more to Germans than its literal translation, "reason" or "common sense" - they would opt for Mr Kohl, whose motto is "trust".

Mr Schroder stands for a leap into the unknown, an adventure, however minor. With or without the blindfold, Germans are still not sure if they are ready for that. Depending on which poll one reads, between a quarter and half the electorate are undecided.

Anne McElvoy, page 26; Kohl turns satire on its head, Culture, page 8