Fischer tries to turn tide as Green support withers

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The Independent Online

Loudspeakers blared the pop song "We Are Family"; posters covered in sunflowers demanded "Men's Wages For Women's Work" and onlookers in the 2,000-strong crowd waved a banner with the words "Run, Joschka Run".

"We have a chance to turn this thing around, " Mr Fischer told his audience of students and grey-haired 1968-generation teachers, lawyers and college lecturers on Wednesday. "Don't believe the opinion polls. I am convinced that we will have another Red-Green government after September and I want to go on being Foreign Minister," he added, to enthusiastic applause.

It was the opening stage of a marathon campaign tour that will take Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's deputy to every major German city over the next six weeks, in the run up to the election next month.

His gruelling agenda includes two public speaking appearances and at least one jogging session a day.

Seldom has Mr Fischer devoted so much time to electioneering. Yet the reasons for his mammoth "Joschka Tour" are reflected almost daily in the opinion polls: Germany's Green party - once an inspiration to environmentalists and peace activists across Europe - is in serious trouble.

If the polls are right the Greens will be consigned to the role of a minor opposition party this September and Germany's ambitious seven-year Red-Green experiment may be remembered only as a historical footnote. It is an unwelcome prospect for a party that just a year ago was at its zenith. Joschka Fischer was then consistently rated Germany's most popular politician and his party commanded a record 13 per cent support in the opinion polls.

With their commitment to phasing out nuclear power and introducing alternative sources of energy, their enthusiasm for multiculturalism and new German citizenship laws for foreigners, the Greens were regarded as the natural choice by many members of the country's middle-class.

Twelve months on, the Greens' fortunes have plummeted. Mr Fischer has been embroiled in an embarrassing scandal over his Foreign Ministry's visa policies, which have resulted in widespread human-trafficking between Ukraine and Germany.

The affair followed a series of catastrophic regional election defeats which came to a head last May when the party was voted out of office in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, where the Greens shared power with the Social Democrats for more than a decade.

Mr Schröder's snap decision to bring forward Germany's general election by a year to next month caught the Greens so badly off balance that one Green MP saw fit to challenge the move in the constitutional court.

With the German electorate's hopes of Mr Schröder's coalition shattered by its failure to create jobs for the country's five million unemployed, voters are increasingly turning to Angela Merkel's conservative opposition Christian Democrats for an answer to the country's economic woes.

Recent polls suggest the Greens will win only 7 percent of the vote. Thousands have quit Mr Schröder's party in protest over his government's attempts at economic reform and formed a new radical "Left party" which has succeeded in splitting the German left.

Badly weakened, but still intent on clinging on to power, several leading Social Democrats in Mr Schröder's government this week openly discussed the idea of forming a "grand coalition" with the conservatives after the election. Such an outcome would leave the Greens consigned to the fringes of power. The party has ruled out the idea of joining forces with anyone but the Social Democrats and has no other political allies.

Commentators say that the dissatisfaction with the Greens is symptomatic of a sea-change affecting German politics. They argue that with five million unemployed, voters have come to regard Green policies as an luxury which come way down a list of priorities headed by the need for more jobs. "The Greens have become the feelgood party of urban academics," Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper said recently.

Joschka Fischer is painfully aware of the dilemma facing his party. In Flensburg on Wednesday, he spent much of his time stressing the "overriding importance of creating new jobs, " before taking his audience on a grand tour of his party's achievements.