CDU may play race card in German election

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The Independent Online

Can a politician be too nice for his own good? The answer that springs from the poisonous well of opposition politics in Germany is evidently "yes". Just ask the affable Ruprecht Polenz, General Secretary of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) for all but six months, sacked unceremoniously last week for not being aggressive enough.

Can a politician be too nice for his own good? The answer that springs from the poisonous well of opposition politics in Germany is evidently "yes". Just ask the affable Ruprecht Polenz, General Secretary of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) for all but six months, sacked unceremoniously last week for not being aggressive enough.

"As the election approaches, what's needed is someone who can more sharply define our criticisms," Mr Polenz said as he announced his sudden "resignation".

Such needs might have been recognised when Mr Polenz was appointed in April. But those were different times. The Christian Democrats, discredited by a series of slush fund scandals and short of volunteers for top jobs, were trying to relaunch themselves as the cuddly party.

In came blue-eyed Angela Merkel, the first East German - and first woman - ever to lead the party. Mr Polenz was her hand-picked general secretary, and she was quite clear what she wanted from him: more of a secretary, less of a general. He was happy to oblige, but it was not enough, and he was booted out without warning and replaced with a combative regional politician, Laurenz Meyer. No more Mr Nice Guy. Ms Merkel demonstrated she is a great deal more ruthless than she is credited for.

She will have to be. For her party, still making no headway against Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government, is showing its ugly face again. Six months after the "new beginning", the Christian Democrats find themselves in yet another upheaval, as their leaders jockey for positions and argue in public over an electoral tactic which, until recently, rarely dared speak its name: the immigrant card.

With a string of xenophobic attacks and burning synagogues illuminating the current political landscape, this may not be the best moment the start a debate about immigration. But some Christian Democrat leaders, notably the ambitious parliamentary leader, Friedrich Merz, have launched one none the less. This has split the party, not only between opponents and advocates of a multi-cultural society, but also between those in favour of turning immigration into an election issue and those who have no stomach for such a tactic.

Mr Merz thinks he has the right answer. With demographic projections showing Germans in danger of extinction, he is willing to accept that some immigrants are needed to keep the numbers up. But he wants to lay down rules. Newcomers should fit in with the "defining culture" of the land, he says, omitting to define what that means. His views were warmly endorsed by Bavaria's right-wing Prime Minister, Edmund Stoiber, who heads the CDU's sister party, the CSU.

The combined forces of the right have got Ms Merkel surrounded. She does not want to play the foreigner card, but she may not have a choice. The Christian Democrats' inexorable drift into uncharted waters is set to continue, and it is not a pretty sight.

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