Red Hamburg snubs racists

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's beleaguered government has been thrown a life-line by even more shambolic opponents. As the Social Democrats self-destruct in Red Hamburg, Imre Karacs examines the prospects of the German opposition.
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For the first time since the beginning of the election campaign, Henning Voscherau did the decent thing yesterday. "Hamburg, my hometown, I wish you luck," he said. With those words he bade farewell not only to Germany's gateway to the world, but to national politics.

"Good riddance," some people in his party muttered. For Mr Voscherau, outgoing mayor of Hamburg and would-be Social Democrat finance minister, is guilty of an unforgivable sin. To descend into the gutter in search of the racist vote might be excusable. But to end up losing votes despite a blatantly populist campaign is very careless indeed. The tragedy for the SPD is that Mr Voscherau's way represented the future. He and his friends had seen Tony Blair shift the Labour Party to the right and ride the populist wave to power. If it worked in Britain, it should work in Hamburg, he reasoned.

The winning theme was to be "law and order", the words in their original English emblazoned across the posters of Hamburg. But given that the Social Democrats have run the city for 40 years, and Mr Voscherau had been mayor for the last 10, he could not exactly blame the local government.

So Mr Voscherau and pointed the finger at the enemy in the midst: foreigners. He was to combat crime by sending "home" the immigrants who were largely responsible for soaring crime statistics.

The gambit worked, to some extent. On Mr Voscherau's coat-tails, the loathsome German People's Union nearly sneaked into the regional assembly, falling less than 300 votes short of the entry ticket. The Christian Democrats, the mainstream law-and-order party, increased their vote by 5 per cent. But the Social Democrats lost 5 per cent, plunging to their lowest share of the vote in Hamburg since the war. The party still came in first, and should be able to form the city's government in tandem with the Greens. But the experience has left a bitter taste which is bound to linger until next September's national elections.

For the linkage between law and order and immigration was not a fringe issue floated by a marginal politician. Mr Voscherau had been marked out for greater things, and his campaign theme was the trial balloon of the Social Democrats' best-placed champion against Mr Kohl next year.

"Internal security" and the danger posed to German society by foreigners is the hobby horse of Mr Voscherau's closest political ally, Gerhard Schroeder, Prime Minister of neighbouring Lower Saxony. Mr Schroeder fancies himself as the German Tony Blair. He has his own regional elections next April, and if he wins those handsomely, he will make a bid for the national nomination.

Mr Schroeder was adamant yesterday he will not alter his strategy.