Germany has its own Tony Blair, but he may be denied his chance

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Germany's long-suffering Social Democrats ought to be feeling smug, writes Imre Karacs in Bonn. Mr Kohl's administration is bankrupt - in the moral as well as the Maastricht sense, and in the polls the Social Democratic Party - the SPD - has a slight edge. Europe's next great political upset is likely to be in the German election next year.

Yet the SPD leader, 53-year-old Oskar Lafontaine, is irritated by questions about the "Blair effect", probably because the polls show him to be at least as unpopular as the Chancellor. Mr Lafontaine ran against Mr Kohl in 1990 and lost. Now he wants to run again on economic policies and working class values which even the unions have denounced as passe.

The alternative is Gerhard Schroder, Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, a handsome man of the same age as Mr Lafontaine, with a right-wing agenda that would make Tony Blair blush. He is actively pro-business, cavorting with people like Bill Gates and thinking nothing of being flown to the Vienna Opera Ball in a Volkswagen company jet. He is an admirer of Anglo- Saxon capitalism, which means he is bewitched by the profit motive, and tart about a weak EMU, which he refers to as "Monopoly money".

Mr Schroder's private life is no less modern. After walking out on his wife a year ago, he has settled down with a girlfriend young enough to be his daughter. And yet, despite this highly publicised affair - or, perhaps, because if it - he is one of the most popular men in Germany. He easily outscores Mr Kohl in a hypothetical head-to-head contest.

But he may not get the chance to prove it in real life. The SPD is not expected to pick its chancellor-candidate until spring, by which time Mr Lafontaine's antiquated policies may be difficult to change. Even if Mr Schroder is selected, he would have less than six months to transform the party. Despite the victories of Mr Blair and Mr Jospin, he may already be running out of time.