Glitzy rallies draw crowds to SPD

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GERMANY'S SOCIAL Democrats launched their election campaign at the weekend with spectacular rallies in Berlin, Munich and Bonn, employing all the choreography and gimmicks picked up by their agents in Britain and the US.

Tens of thousands attended open-air rock concerts in the three cities and heard triumphant speeches forecasting victory for Gerhard Schroder in next month's elections.

The mammoth event culminated in Bonn's Rhine meadows on Saturday night to the thumping rhythm of the "Puhdys", the group that has been rocking East Germans since Communist times, and the lyrics of Manfred Mann's Earth Band.

"Let us begin the new times," sang the crowd as the '68-ers on the rostrum clicked their fingers and swayed out of time.

It looked great on television, but not everything has gone according to plan. With five weeks to go, Mr Schroder, something of a stranger to socialist oratory, has already grown hoarse. And the SPD's hot-air balloon - a metaphor for that party's soar-away spirit rather than for the substance of the manifesto - could not take off in the high winds.

Although the weather held out until Mr Schroder concluded his short address, raindrenched the estimated 15,000 spectators. They had just enough time to shout "Kohl must go" heartily a few times before running off to the tents.

True to form, the speakers gave little of the party's plans away. Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD's left-leaning chairman, railed against the social injustices which have allegedly been perpetrated by the Kohl government. He blamed Germany's high unemployment on companies' excessive readiness to sack workers at the first sign of shrinking profit margins.

Mr Schroder, who was introduced as "Germany's next Chancellor", sought to cause as little offence as possible to Mr Lafontaine and his followers, pledging to restore the sick pay and pensions which have been cut by Bonn. Whilst identifying unemployment as the country's greatest scourge, he promised to slap social security levies on part-time jobs that have so far escaped tax.

Finally, Mr Schroder appealed to supporters to go out and preach his gospel. "Talk to people at work, in shopping centres, schools and colleges, and tell them what's at stake on 27 September," he said.

Chancellor Kohl, who returned from holiday a week earlier than his challenger, has already begun campaigning.There was no rock music at the arena in Dortmund packed with 18,000 supporters yesterday, only brass bands, acrobats and a mass rendition of the national anthem. Mr Kohl, 68, nevertheless took an unsteady bow to the modern world by incorporating jazz in his programme.