That Germany, the engine of European integration, should spawn a Eurosceptic with electoral potential is surprising enough. That such a person should spring from the loins of the left verges on heresy. Yet there he is, carrying the Social Democrat banner in today's elections to the assembly of Baden-Wurttemberg on an anti-Europe and, crucially, anti-immigrant ticket.
The leader of the SPD in this affluent state, Mr Spori has conducted an unashamedly populist campaign, playing on voters' fears of immigrants and anxiety about monetary union. If thesethemes prove to be vote-winners, then the SPD's national leadership is likely to adopt them in the battle to unseat Helmut Kohl in elections due in 1998. If they fail, the party must go back to the drawing board.
The answer will come tonight, but on the evidence of opinion polls and the atmosphere at hustings, the cumbersome slogan "Stability and jobs take priority now - so postpone monetary union" has only elicited yawns. Far more effective has been Mr Spori's call to halt the immigration of Aussiedler, ethnic Germans from eastern Europe. Every year since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Germany has admitted more than 200,000 "resettlers", mostly from the badlands on Russia's fringes. Mr Spori says the country cannot afford them: "As long as unemployment rises, we cannot maintain such a policy."
Statements like that, spiked with inflammatory remarks about these immigrants "walking directly into pensions and dole queues", always get a good reception on the stump. But they have provoked horror among politicians of all hues, including Social Democrats, who suspect Mr Spori of pandering to right- wing extremists.
The man in the centre of this furore is unfazed by accusations that he is bringing beer-hall politics back to the Black Forest. He knows a winner when he sees one. At election rallies Mr Spori now barely talks about Europe, but spends a lot of time discussing immigration. He has scored a few points. The other parties, even the Greens, whose line on immigration would best be described as "the more the merrier", have been forced to concede that the influx of Aussiedler must be curbed. By making this adjustment mid-way through the campaign, they appear to have taken the sting out of the debate, deflecting it back to their own turf.
For the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats that is the economy - rather surprisingly, given that the two parties have governed Germany for 13 years and must, therefore, bear some responsibility for record unemployment of 4.3 million. But Erwin Teufel, Baden-Wurttem- berg's Christian Democrat Prime Minister, dismisses the recession and the steady erosion of the region's industrial base as a natural calamity. "The problem is jobs are disappearing faster than we are creating them," he says.
From his vantage point, a palatial residence overlooking Stuttgart, his state seems like Europe's California, brimming with innovation. It spends a higher proportion of GNP on research and development than Japan and boasts a higher concentration of the industries of the future - software and biotechnology - than almost any other region of the developed world. As for those disappearing jobs, he blames high wages, inflated by some of the heaviest taxes in Europe, and the strength of the Deutschmark.
His analysis is echoed on the other side of the city, at the headquarters of the pride of German industry, Mercedes-Benz. The company, which made a profit of about DM2bn (pounds 880m) last year, would vote tomorrow for the abolition of the swaggering currency which stifles its exports. "We say `Maastricht Now'," enthuses a spokesman.
In these times of uncertainty, Germans are more inclined to put their faith in the trusted institutions of Mercedes-Benz and Chancellor Kohl, who preaches the same gospel, than a left-wing rabble-rouser.
Today's elections in Baden-Wurttemberg, as well as the Rhineland-Palatinate and Schleswig-Holstein, are seen as a mid-term test for Mr Kohl's governing coalition. According to the polls, they will show that the Chancellor has much to fear from traditional Eurocentric Social Democrats, but little from Mr Spori's ilk. In the midst of a recession, and despite the surprises sprung by the opposition, Europe's longest-serving leader continues to dictate Germany's agenda.Reuse content