German Election: New Chancellor faces challenge from socialism's old believers

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The Independent Online
AMID THE wild celebrations at the SPD headquarters on Sunday, more than a few faces seemed lost in contemplation, furrows deepening across their brows as the hours dragged on. Many party officials could not hide the fear that they had just won the mandate from hell.

To Social Democrats of the "New Centre", the victory was too final. The thumping majority for "Red-Green" appears to have ruled out all alternatives, and threatens to swamp Gerhard Schroder and his allies with ideologues from the left.

The biggest challenge to centrist policies will come from Oskar Lafontaine, chairman of the Social Democrat Party.

From his power base in the Saarland, where he is Prime Minister, Mr Lafontaine controls the levers of the party machinery with great skill. He is an old believer, rooted to causes such as subsidising unprofitable coal pits and steel mills.

Latterly, Mr Lafontaine has become a passionate advocate of reform of the international financial system. He is mistrusted by business, but hugely popular with party members.

Mr Lafontaine is set to play a central role in coalition discussions with the Greens. He has been linked to a job as minister of finance. That, however, would damage Mr Schroder's business-friendly image. So Mr Lafontaine is more likely to end up as head of the Social Democrat parliamentary group, traditionally the second most powerful job in the government.

There is no shortage of ambition among Mr Schroder's coalition partners. Joschka Fischer, leader of the Greens, is often described as "the best chancellor Germany will never have". Aged 50, Mr Fischer is the wittiest speaker in the Bundestag, a good organiser and a consummate manipulator.

The path of this butcher's son to the summit of German politics is astounding. A former book salesman, taxi-driver and part-time revolutionary, Mr Fischer spent his youth in the radical leftist movement in the Sixties. Disillusioned with violence, he joined the fledgling Green movement, where he quickly emerged as a realist. He has served as Justice Minister in the regional government of Hesse, and is almost universally regarded as the most capable potential minister of his party.

If the coalition talks succeed, Mr Fischer is expected to become Vice- Chancellor, and possibly a foreign minister. The prospect of Mr Fischer addressing the United Nations on Germany's behalf frightens even some of his own members.

The key role in the coalition discussions will be played by Jurgen Trittin, the Greens' national spokesman.

Mr Trittin, 44, plays an uneasy balancing role between the left and the pragmatists of his party. An even more difficult task awaits him now: building a bridge between two parties and two almost irreconcilable sets of leftist politics.

If he succeeds, his reward will be a government job, possibly the ecologically hot seat in the transport ministry.

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