Humble Kohl pleads for one more chance

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The Independent Online
ON THE penultimate leg of his 60-stop election tour of Germany, Helmut Kohl looks fresher than when he began. Standing in front of 20,000 cheering supporters in Munich's picturesque Mar- ienplatz, he produces his best grandfatherly smile, even when made to wait for an hour while his Bavarian hosts monopolise the microphone.

The Chancellor must have patience, because he is here to plead for one more chance, and knows his followers have doubts. So he is at his humblest, approaching the Bavarian audience with the submissive comportment of a prodigal son. "We have made mistakes," he says apologetically. "Even Helmut Kohl has."

His hosts, the Bavarian Prime Minister, Edmund Stoiber, and the Chairman of the Christian Social Union, Theo Waigel, have never disputed that. Apart from numerous policy disagreements, the Bavarians have been scathing about Mr Kohl's campaign from the very beginning. If he has any chance at all now, they remind him, it is because of their helping hand.

Two weeks ago, Mr Kohl's Christian Democratic Union campaign bus was trundling along a blind alley. Now, thanks to his Bavarian allies' magnificent victory in elections of their own, conservatives have fresh hope for the elections on Sunday.

"A shaft of light from the south has dispersed the gloom over Germany," is how Mr Stoiber modestly describes the effect of his triumph against the Social Democrats in elections to the regional assembly. Gerhard Schroder had paid four visits to Munich, Mr Waigel chimes in, and his party had lost four points in the city. "One per cent for every trip," Mr Waigel guffaws, to the crowd's evident delight.

So much for the famous "Schroder effect", but maybe the "Bavarian effect" is also wearing off. At first, it propelled Mr Kohl to within shouting distance of his challenger. But he stopped catching up in the past few days, and the gap may even be widening again. Hobe is beginning to ebb away.

The Independent learnt that an unpublished survey completed yesterday by one of Germany's largest polling organisations put Mr Schroder three points ahead. Surprisingly, the Chancellor's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, seemed in danger of tripping over parliament's 5-per cent hurdle.

Such a scenario would herald the end of Mr Kohl's 16-year reign, though the polls could be wrong. "Germany has come to a fork in the road and has a decision to make," Kohl tells the crowd in Munich. "We can only hope that the compass isn't broken."

The needle on the compass has been spinning crazily over the last months, but never once has it settled in Mr Kohl's direction. Ever since Mr Schroder won his party's nomination in the spring, the Social Democrats have been ahead. Not one poll has predicted a Kohl victory.

Sunday's outcome could be messy, but in all the likeliest scenarios, Mr Schroder's figure moves into focus, and Mr Kohl's frame fades into obscurity. Perhaps the two biggest parties will be forced into an "elephant's wedding", without the self-styled elephant himself. The talk is of a "grand coalition", and the electoral arithmetic almost dictates that. But Mr Kohl, who likes being depicted as a pachyderm, will not take part in one - that much he has already said.

If Mr Schroder wins and becomes Chancellor, in whatever party constellation, Germany will be in for profound changes. Relations with Europe, particularly Britain, would be altered without recognition. As Mr Schroder told The Independent in January, he would endeavour to elevate London to the same level of importance Paris now enjoys in the European decision-making process.

"My idea of Europe is that the Franco-German axis, which has always been important, should be turned into a German-French-British triangle," he said. "If you are to get into Europe - and you must - then you need what Tony Blair has demanded for Britain: a leading role - a place in the leadership. And that can only work in partnership with Germany and France. I think that is the right way ahead, especially since I believe the British are on a more correct economic and political path than the French Socialists - or at least the majority of French Socialists." The French, understandably, are rooting for Chancellor Kohl.

Which combination will emerge on Sunday night, not even the best crystal ball gazers can foretell. The numbers are simply too close to call.

Leading article,

Review, page 3