Schroder and Kohl slug out final duel

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The Independent Online
A NARROW win on points for the challenger was the general verdict after Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the Social Democrats' chancellor candidate, Gerhard Schroder, slugged it out for two hours yesterday in a heated clash, televised live to a nation baying for blood.

The venue was the Bundestag, the last gathering of German MPs before they disappear on the campaign trail for the general election on 27 September. The occasion was the debate over next year's budget, but about income and expenditure little was said.

Having backed out of a television duel, this was Chancellor Kohl's moment to demonstrate his parliamentary skills and to expose the barrenness of Mr Schroder's policies. He may have succeeded in the second objective, but his rambling 80-minute speech, dwelling on his historical achievements, was definitely not what the spin-doctors had ordered.

The most memorable sound-bite clearly came from Mr Schroder and, judging by the frown on Mr Kohl's face, it hurt. "You have lost yourself in the past, that's the problem," he declared.

There were more insults of the same kind, turning the spotlight on Mr Kohl's age - 68 - and his extraordinarily long tenure: 16 years.

"That is a speech about the past," Mr Schroder mocked, as the incumbent strode off the rostrum. "You are incapable of handling the future."

Mr Kohl's colleagues had dug up embarrassing quotes from Mr Schroder from way back, and scathing criticism was levelled at his putative ministers.

Mr Schroder responded by pretending to reveal the Kohl camp's innermost thoughts: "The people in your own party feel that with you they cannot win. At the outset of the campaign we had declared, `Thank you, Helmut, but that will do.' Your people have already forgotten the word `Danke'."

Mr Kohl's slurs were comparatively tame. He accused Mr Schroder of acting like "Pavlov's dog", reacting against all government measures on reflex. The Chancellor and his lieutenants fired questions at Mr Schroder, seeking a few clues as to his policies. None came.

The government did, however, manage to wrong-foot the opposition for one moment. To the Social Democrats' obvious dismay, Theo Waigel, the finance minister, had incorporated in his budget a DM10bn (pounds 3.5bn) tax giveaway, to take effect next January. Would this be the same DM10bn the SPD had promised in its election manifesto?

Mr Schroder, no stranger to borrowing the clothes of others, took it as a back-handed compliment. "It pleases me," he said, "that three-and- a-half weeks before the elections, you have ditched your unfinanceable tax model and picked up the SPD's."

The rest was pure hustings. Mr Kohl, endeavouring to be statesmanlike, spoke about his role in German reunification, and tried to put a positive gloss on the problems encountered since in eastern Germany. "Of course people had expectations there that could not be fulfilled in such a short time," he said. "But just as clearly, the picture has been improving."

Unemployment was also about to improve, with the number of jobless due to fall soon to under 4 million. A "clear turnaround" in the labour market was in sight.

Mr Schroder alleged that the Chancellor was out of touch. "You either do not know, or do not want to know, how ordinary people live."