Late surge gives Kohl hope of fifth win

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THE GERMAN election race is moving towards a photo-finish, with Chancellor Helmut Kohl making a late surge to win an unprecedented fifth term, while his challenger, Gerhard Schroder, runs into controversy.

Mr Schroder's allies in the trade unions and on the left wing of his Social Democrat Party united yesterday in condemning disparaging remarks made by his shadow economics minister about the welfare state.

In a rare press outing on Monday night in Hamburg, Jost Stollmann described Germany's much-vaunted social welfare system as a "prison for the average earner".

By calling for cuts in benefits and the introduction of private pensions, Mr Stollmann, a millionaire computer entrepreneur, provoked outrage among traditional SPD voters.

Mr Stollmann is part of a double act, the subtlety of which has been lost on many voters.

While Mr Schroder swung to the left in the election campaign to reassure the grassroots, it fell to Mr Stollmann to seek votes in the so-called "New Centre" of German politics. His role was to keep business sweet.

The problem is that many undecided voters are now so confused about what Mr Schroder wants that they are returning to Chancellor Kohl's side in droves. As a result, the 10-point lead that Mr Schroder enjoyed over his rival has shrunk to two points in just a matter of weeks. All pollsters agree that the gap is now too close to call.

Mr Kohl's campaign has gathered further momentum with his wife's claim that US President Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Russian President Boris Yeltsin want the Chancellor to win.

Hannelore Kohl said: "They all say, 'Helmut, we've got our fingers crossed. You do it.'"

Though not a member of the party, the businessman, picked for his "lateral thinking" by Mr Schroder, had pledged to follow the party manifesto.

Chancellor Kohl's late charge in the polls has increased the incentive for Social Democrat Party leaders to distance themselves from Mr Stollmann's outburst.

"We knew we had differing opinions in some areas," said the SPD campaign manager, Franz Muntefering. "Voters know he's not a Social Democrat, that he doesn't speak for the SPD and isn't campaigning in the traditional way."

But though it is true he is not speaking for the party, Mr Stollmann appears to say many things his mentor, Mr Schroder, dare not utter on the campaign trail.

As the unrepentant businessman maintained yesterday: "My ideas enrich the party. If I was only here to defend SPD policy, Gerhard Schroder wouldn't need me."

Mr Stollmann has been beset by controversy from the moment he was picked in July. After some inept appearances on television, he was ordered by the Social Democrats' chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, to lie low for a while.

His reappearance this week was intended to dispel rumours that Mr Schroder was turning too far to the left. That goal has probably been achieved, but the businessman has at one stroke succeeded in exposing all the cracks the party bosses had hidden so successfully until now.

Worse, the SPD has lost the coherence of its admittedly simplistic message, and is in danger of becoming a national laughing stock. Pollsters say German voters punish a party that diverges from its image, and Mr Stollmann clearly has trouble sounding like a Social Democrat.

As Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the Free Democrats, said: "Mr Stollmann is about as suited to the SPD as a penguin is to the Sahara."

Chancellor Kohl, meanwhile, keeps to the pre-written party script. Apart from an attempt to tap into German fears over the Russian crisis, he has not deviated from his main soundbite: "Stability instead of risk."

The message is crystal clear. Many Germans are beginning to get his point.