Accident-prone SPD insists it can beat Kohl

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The Independent Online
RUDOLF SCHARPING, who hopes to defeat Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the federal elections tomorrow, insisted yesterday that victory is within his party's grasp.

'Since 1982 (when Mr Kohl came to power), a change in government has never been as close as now,' said the leader of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), describing the outcome as 'entirely open'.

At the same time, the Social Democrats were yet again caught up in embarrassments of their own making. Gerhard Schroder, the man who could replace Mr Scharping as party leader if things go badly for the SPD tomorrow, was criticised for hinting that he could serve in a grand coalition - Social and Christian Democrats together, under Mr Kohl. Mr Schroder argued that, for him, Mr Kohl was 'not a non-person'.

The subject of a possible grand coalition is taboo in both main parties, lest it lead to defeatist thinking. Hen ning Voscherau, SPD mayor of Hamburg, criticised Mr Schroder for 'smashing china', while Friedrich Bohl, head of the Chancellor's office, gleefully declared that Mr Schroder was 'leaving the sinking SPD ship'.

Mr Schroder weighed in with some damage-limitation of his own, emphasising that he, too, was against the prospect of a grand coalition, and that his comments had been purely 'theoretical'.

As election day approaches, the polls suggest that the two sides are, in effect, neck and neck. The Christian Democrats are ahead of the SPD - but they would probably need their present junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), in order to hold more seats than the combined forces of the SPD and their likely coalition partners, the Greens.

Despite a slight recovery in its fortunes, it is still unclear whether the FDP will clear the 5-per-cent hurdle necessary to take seats in parliament. One of Mr Scharping's favourite election-trail quips is that the FDP stands for fast drei Prozent - almost 3 per cent - a reference to the party's recent dismal performance in regional elections. Optimists within the FDP take comfort from the fact that the party has often done better nationally than it has in the regions.

Another unknown quantity is the performance of the PDS, the former Communists. If the party gains at least three first-past-the-post seats in east Berlin, then, according to the German electoral rules, it will be allowed to pick up a total of 20 or 30 seats in the federal parliament - even if, as expected, it gets less than 5 per cent of the nation-wide vote.

Theoretically at least, its votes in the Bundestag could then be on offer for the Social Democrats to unseat Mr Kohl and install an SPD chancellor. For the SPD, this prospect is both tempting and embarrassing.

Mr Kohl has repeatedly argued that the SPD would seize the opportunity of doing a deal with the PDS, if that would enable them to form a minority government - as happened in June in Saxony- Anhalt, eastern Germany.

Mr Scharping has denied the accusation. Now, Mr Schroder, too, has sought to quash speculation of an electoral pact. He argued that it was 'objectively not possible to rule the country with a red- green (Social Democrat and Green) coalition, which would be supported or tolerated by the PDS'.

(Photograph omitted)