SDP hedges bets with twin track policy

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The Independent Online
Unable to decide whether to turn left or right, Germany's Social Democrats are doing both. Imre Karacs reports from the largest opposition party's conference in Hanover.

The years rolled back as Oskar Lafontaine, the leader of the party which hopes to unseat Chancellor Helmut Kohl, rose to the podium. He spoke about the evils of capitalism, castigated wicked speculators, and condemned the profiteers who put "share-holder value" above the interests of employees.

It was a virtuoso performance. An emotional appeal to the Social Democrats' core values, drawing on socialist terminology of yesteryear, was laced with harsh criticism of the Kohl government's economic policies.

On the threshold of election year, that was to be expected, but Mr Lafontaine did not stop there. Taking a tilt against the dark forces of "globalisation", the German leader put himself forward as the champion of a Social Democratic Europe.

But whilst he praised his British comrades for signing the EU's Social Chapter, Mr Lafontaine made it clear that he was more in tune with the traditional leanings of French Socialists. The road to salvation - and power - led via interventionist policies, he indicated.

"Without a co-ordinated economic and financial policy on a European scale, it is no longer possible to promote growth and employment," he declared. Europe, he suggested, should become a fortress against the excesses of globalisation: wage-dumping, tax-dumping and social dumping.

Mr Lafontaine also wanted the EU to uphold Germany's high standards on environment, and "harmonise" them throughout the community. On the domestic front, he suggested higher taxes on energy, and more spending on education and job-creation.

The motto of the party's four-day conference is "Innovation and social justice". Mr Lafontaine dwelt at length on the latter, but barely mentioned the former. That task will fall to Gerhard Schroder, the Social Democrats' second chancellor candidate.

Mr Schroder's message, to be delivered tomorrow, will be diametrically opposed to Mr Lafontaine's ideological presentation. Mr Schroder mistrusts "European" solutions, and likes to present himself as Germany's own Tony Blair.

The party will decide between the two next March. Until then, the Social Democrats must soldier on, with their twin track programme and double-headed candidate.