Kohl scrabbles for votes on immigration and workfare

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The Independent Online
CONFIRMING HIS belief that this year's election will be won or lost on unemployment and immigration, Chancellor Helmut Kohl yesterday unveiled a programme that promises to curb both.

The jobless, according to the last tranche of the Christian Democrats' manifesto, can expect their wages topped up by the state if they accept low-paid work. Foreigners, it advises, should stay away from Germany, and those already here had better start behaving themselves.

"Germany is not a country of immigration," declared Theo Waigel, chairman of the Bavarian sister party, who attended the presentation in Bonn. That phrase was left out of the two parties' joint programme, but the new harder line is nevertheless clearly discernible. "Immigration must be restricted as tightly as possible," it states. "Anyone who calls for immigration to our densely populated country endangers its inner peace."

Foreigners living in Germany, estimated at 7 million, must adjust their lifestyles to the social and legal order of Germany. To encourage integration, the nationality procedure is to be eased, but there will be no fundamental change in the nationality law, which requires new citizens to burn their previous passports.

The number of unemployed, Mr Kohl told journalists, was heading down, and would fall below 4 million in the coming months. To encourage the trend, the government would implement the tax reforms it developed two years ago but failed to get through the upper house dominated by the Social Democrats.

The labour market's problem, the government recognises, is that German workers have become too expensive, largely because of levies and taxes imposed by the state. To get around this, Mr Kohl is proposing the "combi- wage", a concept remarkably similar to the Anglo-Saxon "workfare".

The idea has provoked a great deal of controversy in Germany, not so much by its radicalism, but because the protagonists dispute who came up with it first. Gerhard Schroder, the Social Democrat chancellor candidate who has plundered the election programmes of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, insists on the German copyright.

The row over the authorship of this scheme has highlighted the dilemma facing German voters: the two rival camps are so busy stealing each other's clothes that no one can tell any more who stands for what.

As the policy gap narrows between Chancellor Kohl and Mr Schroder, voter confusion appears to deepen. Opinion polls show rising optimism over the economy, contributing to a decline in Mr Schroder's personal popularity, yet the challenger still outranks the incumbent in his perceived economic competence.

In the figures that matter, Mr Schroder is still ahead, perhaps even by 10 points, according to a poll published yesterday. Or he may be only three points in front, as reported in another poll last week, in which case the coming weeks will be exciting.

Mr Kohl, for his part, is certain of victory. Well, almost. Yesterday he announced for the first time that, if he loses, he will bow out not only as Chancellor but also as chairman of his party.