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

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin