German party looks for Tony clone as leader

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Casting an envious glance towards Britain, Germany's largest opposition party sought to re-invent itself yesterday as the force of the future, but remained mired in arguments of the past.

The Social Democrats, faced with a fifth term in opposition if they lose against Helmut Kohl next year, seem ready to try just about anything that might catapult them to power. To the last man and woman, they are now avowedly Blairite. All that separates them from victory in 73 weeks' time - as their posters promise - is the discovery of Labour's winning recipe and the anointment of Tony Blair's German clone.

Both remain elusive, however, and the obvious shortcomings have sparked internal feuds. Yesterday, the party attempted to plug the policy gaps, turning away abruptly from its fascination for heavy industry, and espousing the technology of the next century.

In the first glimpse of its main electoral themes, the Social Democrats released a pamphlet extolling the virtues of "innovation, education and science". If elected, the party pledges to create a climate to nurture new technology, and to make better use of risk capital. There would be more spending on higher education, and - despite heavy resistance from environmentally-conscious voters - more support for genetic engineering. Coal mines and steel works do not get a look-in.

The programme bears the imprint of Gerhard Schroder, the right-wing Social Democrat politician who is seen as the closest Germany has to a Tony Blair. Mr Schroder, 53, is a telegenic populist with bags of charisma, a nice smile and a penchant for the good life.

He has the highest poll rating of any potential candidate for Chancellor. Unfortunately, his popularity is found mainly outside the party. Within the SPD, he is seen as a one-man band, and is universally loathed.

Mr Schroder is not yet the official candidate to take on Chancellor Kohl in elections due in the autumn of 1998. Until last week, the Social Democrats were not planning to pick their champion before next spring. In March, Mr Schroder has to fight an election in the Land of Lower Saxony, where he is Prime Minister. He has vowed not to stand for national office unless he gets a good result at home.

For once, circumstances are working in his favour, but he may not be given the time he needs to put his own affairs in order. Mr Blair's stunning victory has turned perceptions upside down overnight, sparking a furious row about the wisdom of waiting for a Messiah who would then have only six months to turn the lumbering party machinery around.

"The right moment for the naming of the SPD chancellor candidate could be earlier than spring 1998," said Heide Simonis, the Prime Minister of Schleswig-Holstein, tipped long ago as potentially the first female Chancellor. Ms Simonis, a left-winger aged 54, could be angling for the job herself, or might just be trying to thwart Mr Schroder.

Either way, Oskar Lafontaine, the party's nominal leader, has been cast in the debate - since rejoined by other party grandees - as the clapped- out incumbent, a blast from the past.

Mr Lafontaine, also aged 53, fought and heavily lost against Mr Kohl in 1990. Since returning to the top party post nearly two years ago, he has brought the SPD to a respectable poll rating, but has failed truly to capture the voters' imagination.

He is patently incapable of generating the excitement for which Germany's left craves, yet the decision to pick Mr Kohl's adversary rests in his hands. But even if there is a German Blair ready to supplant him, the parallels with Britain end there. Germany's opposition is cursed by a reasonably competent government. Or as Mr Schroder himself conceded: "Helmut Kohl is no John Major."