The indestructible chancellor confronts his final adversary

He is the undisputed doyen of international politics, argues Imre Karacs, but after 16 years in office, Helmut Kohl looks set to quit the world stage
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The Independent Online
SO FAREWELL THEN, Helmut Kohl. Surely this last hill is just a little too steep to climb; for a man of 68 this must be the final campaign. The polls never really gave you a chance. No one has ever come back from where you stand.

It now seems quite likely that some time tonight, Chancellor Kohl will concede defeat, bringing to conclusion a glorious career. With 16 years in office, he is easily the most durable leader of a democracy anywhere in the world. His run of victories had to come to an end one day, and all the indications are that this moment has arrived.

It is at this point in the narrative that seasoned Germany-watchers reach for their caveats: unless, of course, the polls are wrong, as they have been in the past. Or the Chancellor confounds all experts and stages a miraculous comeback. This has happened before, too. The last time, in 1994, Mr Kohl scraped home with a majority of 0.3 per cent.

Predicting Mr Kohl's imminent demise is an unrewarding business. Journalism is littered with the corpses of political obituarists who jumped to the wrong conclusion prematurely.

And not only journalists have been caught out. Franz-Josef Strauss, one of the cleverest conservative politicians in post-war Germany, thought he had seen off his rival with the following put-down: "Herr Kohl will never become Chancellor... He has no ability."

Even Mr Kohl's admiring father warned his son as he was about to take a leap from the provinces into the national league that he would not be able to hack it in big-time Bonn. How wrong have all his detractors been. The ungainly provincial boy with a manner of speech that belies his education, and saddled with an apparent incapacity for grasping complexities, has not done that badly.

He has already served longer than any of his predecessors this century. Strauss is long dead and, outside his native Bavaria, all but forgotten - except perhaps for that famous prediction. Colleagues or rivals who could see in Mr Kohl no more than an intellectual minnow have been routed. On his way to the top, he disposed of them all, including the last Social Democrat chancellor, the ever-so cerebral Helmut Schmidt.

He went on to defeat four other opposition leaders in successive elections. Gerhard Schroder is the fifth challenger; the end of the line. The Social Democrat talent pool is empty.

On the world stage, Mr Kohl has outwitted Margaret Thatcher, outmanoeuvred Francois Mitterrand, and had Mikhail Gorbachev eating out of his hands. He is the undisputed doyen of international politics. As Mr Kohl likes to boast, only Washington gets more high-powered visitors than the small town on the Rhine. The man is practically indestructible.

And yet, as German voters pile into the polling booths this morning, Mr Kohl has to be considered the underdog. True, no sitting chancellor ever lost to the opposition, but none of his predecessors had ever gone to decision day trailing in the polls. From the moment Mr Schroder bounced his party into picking him as their candidate, Mr Kohl has been trailing.

That was in the spring. The Chancellor and his party had lulled themselves into a false sense of security. They had reckoned on facing Oskar Lafontaine, the chairman of the Social Democrats - a certified loser. He had stood against Mr Kohl in 1990, correctly but unwisely carped about the cost of German reunification, and was trounced. The East flocked to the "Chancellor of unity".

Another uneven contest seemed in sight. The Christian Democrats were so sure, they entertained themselves with the question of when Mr Kohl should hand over the baton and to whom. And then Mr Schroder upset it all by winning his regional elections in Lower Saxony so handsomely that

it left even his internal enemies gasping. He walked away with the nomination, and has been in the saddle ever since.

As spring turned to summer, Mr Kohl's cause seemed forlorn. The economy was picking up, unemployment falling and, inevitably, the Chancellor was clawing his way back, but far too slowly. His party had started off at 12 points behind Mr Schroder's. When Germany emptied and the campaign moved to Majorca, the gap still stood at eight points. Then Mr Kohl came back from holiday early while Mr Schroder was still basking in the sun. That chipped a point or two away - but no more.

It was all too easy. Four weeks ago, on a trip across Bavaria, one of Mr Schroder's spokesmen could no longer hide his party's complacency: "It's like taking penalty kicks into an empty goal," he said. The Kohl campaign was a shambles, the slogans infantile, the videos resembled a home movie. And the Christian Democrats were bickering once again about the succession.

But you will not hear Social Democrats complain about a lack of sporting challenge today. The vast cushion has been deflated, the lead shrank into microscopic proportions in recent days. Two points it came down to after the stunning Bavarian victory two weeks ago: well within the pollsters' margin of error. Suddenly, the 5,000-strong crowds at Mr Kohl's rallies in previous weeks were swelling to 20,000.

To their credit, Mr Schroder's team did not crack, or at least managed to confine their panic to the privacy of campaign headquarters. But they had no response to Mr Kohl's late surge, and in the past few days showed signs of coming apart along the same left-right divisions that had put paid to previous challenges.

The government, meanwhile, sprung a few surprises. The Chancellor had promised to bring unemployment down to below four million by D-Day. In the east, the Christian Democrats had written to their friends and members in business, asking them to hire temporary staff for the duration of the campaign. That failed to do the trick. The last official figures - for the month of August - showed a surfeit of 95,000 jobless. But then last Friday, with still five days of September left, the government leaked the latest statistics: rejoice! Unemployment has fallen below four million. Right on schedule, like a German train.

Could Mr Kohl still pull it off? You bet. Once again, he has confounded the critics and dispelled some of the doubts surrounding him. After seeing him charge through Germany, gathering pace as he pulls into the last station, few voters can have any illusions about the Chancellor's immense strength or his craving for victory. He seems in no mood to retire; his thirst for power is as acute as it was 16 years ago. His earlier hints at bowing out with dignity must now be regarded as evidence of a wicked sense of humour.

In Mr Schroder, the Chancellor has met the most formidable adversary yet, one who does not feel ashamed at stealing his opponent's clothes. The Social Democrats are better organised than in previous contests and have learnt a lot from the campaign techniques of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. By contrast, the Christian Democrats are driving a clapped-out battle bus.

So here is Helmut Kohl again, battling against the odds, in search of a win that would set him up for a record-breaking fifth term, one that would take him past Otto von Bismarck's 19 years as chancellor. And he did not have to face the voters.

Yes, Mr Kohl can make it, but is unlikely to - all the caveats notwithstanding. But there is no doubt about the enduring legacy of this politician with "no ability". They are already referring to his most likely successor as "Helmut Schroder".