Schroder's odd couple shake German politics

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER charges are levelled at Gerhard Schroder, the evasive Social Democrat who wants to be the next German Chancellor is unlikely to be accused of breaking election pledges. Mr Schroder has avoided making any promises of substance, except that there would be a few surprises.

So far he has kept his word, though "surprise" might be an understatement. The appointment of two men to his shadow cabinet has sent shock waves through the cosy world of German politics. With seven weeks to go before the elections, it is already clear that Mr Schroder will stand or fall upon the wisdom of his double whammy, and that if he wins, Germany will never be the same again.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong about the choice of the multi-millionaire Jost Stollmann as shadow economy minister, or the New York publisher Michael Naumann as shadow culture minister. After 16 years of Helmut Kohl's pussy- footing stewardship, Germany is yearning for change and boldness.

Fine, but along comes Mr Stollmann preaching "revolution", and Mr Naumann denigrating the cultural legacy of the Kohl era as a "museum". The assembled elite has demanded to know who these upstarts are to pass judgement on the glory of the Federal Republic.

Neither man is a professional politician, and neither plans to run for Parliament. That is already taxing constitutional experts: ministers are normally expected to be parliamentarians. Unaccountable as they would be to voters, Social Democrats suspect the terrible twins might strain at the party leash in a future government. Perhaps not Mr Naumann, who has been a member for more than 10 years. But Mr Stollmann might prove harder, for he is not even an SPD member.

Mr Stollmann's less than ringing endorsement of social democracy has not helped. "You can be sure that I have considered what this party stands for," he told Spiegel magazine soon after his appointment. "I have read the manifesto ... I can support this with a clean conscience. Only here and there did I have a few reservations."

His comrades were quickly made aware of the "here and there". Take the central tenet of Mr Schroder's plan to revitalise the economy and cut unemployment. He has pinned his hopes on a revived "Alliance for Jobs" programme. The idea is that the unions, employers and the government would get together to fix wages and employment levels. The unions would cut their wage demands, companies would hire new workers and Mr Schroder would smile benevolently on.

But Mr Stollmann, who at 29 founded the computer company CompuNet and remains at its head, has doubts. "As an entrepreneur I do not think I can tell employers how many new jobs they should create," the 43-year- old shadow minister said.

Just to make clear where he stood, Mr Stollmann heaped scorn on coal subsidies, ridiculed Germany's customer-unfriendly shopping hours and picked holes in the welfare net. The left and the unions were furious, but the government was also speechless. Mr Stollmann had just stolen all their lines, and added a few more that even the best friends of business had been too shy to utter in public.

So far, Mr Schroder has stuck up for his protege. "He is aware of the risk of taking on this task," the candidate said. "In Germany, cultural exchange between business and politics is still undeveloped."

Just as the Stollmann storm began to abate, Mr Naumann took the stage. It is provocative enough to nominate a federal minister of culture - that realm has until now been jealously guarded by individual Lander - but the cultural elite did not think he was up to it, and soon everyone could see why.

The 56-year-old former journalist appears to have a low regard for the country's artistic output. Mr Kohl, with his passion for nothing more contemporary than Vivaldi, has left his imprint, Mr Naumann argues. Not that he is exactly cutting edge, having told one interviewer that "for me, Orpheus was the Eric Clapton of antiquity". All the same, he is associated with "Cool Germany", a slogan in Naumannesque circles, and the German press call him "Now Man", proving that trendiness is indeed relative.

Yet it was in the historical domain that Mr Naumann has made his biggest mark. As culture minister, he would be against building the concrete Holocaust monument in the middle of Berlin, on the grounds of taste, and because it is not needed. The concentration camps are the proper monuments to Nazi crimes, he says.

Such sentiments have been voiced in the past, but mostly by Jews. No German politician has dared to treat so brutally the memorial sponsored and selected by Chancellor Kohl.

Mr Schroder is standing by Mr Naumann, too. His two unorthodox wingers serve his purpose of invading the centre ground. The danger is that while he is busy stealing Mr Kohl's voters, Mr Schroder's left flank will collapse - latest polls show that Mr Kohl is closing in.