Germany's Blair set to take on Kohl

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GERHARD Schroder, the most popular opposition politician in Germany, was last night close to winning the coveted Social Democrat Party's nomination for Chancellor.

His selection would deal a severe blow to Helmut Kohl's re-election prospects. Mr Kohl, who is in the 16th year of his reign at the head of a coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, has trailed Mr Schroder in opinion polls for two years.

The governing parties' election strategy has, however, rested on the assumption that the Social Democrats would shun Mr Schroder's brand of centrist politics and throw their weight behind Oskar Lafontaine, a passionate combatant of the old school.

Mr Lafontaine and his friends on the party executive recently have contrived to belittle Mr Schroder's electoral appeal. But faced with the prospect of a protracted internal struggle, the leadership caved in to demands yesterday for a quick decision on which of the two men should lead them into battle against Mr Kohl. The matter will be settled next Monday, the day after Mr Schroder is expected to be endorsed by voters of Lower Saxony, the Land he has governed for eight years.

The polls suggest Mr Schroder is set to win about 44 per cent of votes in his region; roughly the same as four years ago. He will not fight for the national nomination, he has said, if he loses 2 per cent of his share.

The changing mood in the Social Democrat party was evident at its traditional Ash Wednesday meeting, held in Vilshofen, Bavaria. Amid the customary adulation for Mr Lafontaine, who delighted delegates with a fiery speech, participants could not disguise their yearning for power, rather than empty left-wing rhetoric. "Lafontaine has always spoken the truth, but that alone cannot help us any more. In an election campaign, Schroder is better," said one delegate.

"You have ensured the next Chancellor will be a Social Democrat," said Renate Schmidt, a member of the party praesidium that will choose the candidate. "You must make a simple and quick decision on who should sit at the front of the tandem."

Mr Lafontaine, who was beaten by Mr Kohl in 1990, has not given up, however. He has indicated that if Mr Schroder gains 2 or 3 per cent in Sunday's Lower Saxony elections, he will go gracefully. If the result falls in the grey zone between Mr Schroder's self-imposed trapdoor and the hurdle erected by his rival, then Monday's meeting will be a bloody affair.