German opposition anoints its hoped-for saviour: Social Democrats seek to end disarray and escape the political doldrums

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GERMANY'S opposition Social Democrats (SPD) yesterday formally elected their new leader, in the hope that he is the man to pull them out of the doldrums and allow them to take power from Helmut Kohl's ailing government in elections next year.

Rudolf Scharping, Prime Minister of the Rhineland-Palatinate, had already emerged as clear winner in a poll of the membership of the Social Democrats earlier this month, the first time the issue has been put to members in this way.

Yesterday's vote, at a special party congress in Essen, showed less unanimous support for Mr Scharping, 45, than there had been for his predecessor, Bjorn Engholm. Mr Engholm received more than 90 per cent of the conference vote in 1991; Mr Scharping, in what should have been a rubber-stamping exercise, gained just under 80 per cent of the votes.

There are, in effect, two schools within the Social Democrats. Some believe the party's profile needs to be more clearly radical, to distinguish it from the floundering Christian Democrats. Others are eager to ensure a 'safe pair of hands', who can appeal to more conservative voters, too.

Mr Scharping is also set to be the SPD's candidate for chancellor after Oskar Lafontaine, deputy leader of the SPD, was persuaded to withdraw his bid.

The main criticism of Mr Scharping has been his lack of charisma. His defenders insist, however, that he has shown himself to be a strong leader in Rhineland-Palatinate, the region immediately south of Bonn. Germany's regional system means that many important powers are devolved; the Land, or region, provides a key power-base.

There is no mistaking the sense of relief among the Social Democrats that they have been able to find a competent successor to Mr Engholm painlessly. Equally, however, many acknowledge that the party still faces an enormous challenge. The acting party leader, Johannes Rau, said yesterday that the party had not yet gained the trust that the government had lost. Helmut Schmidt, the former chancellor, said that the 'crisis of trust' in all parties still affected the SPD.

The Social Democrats had only three party leaders between 1945 and 1987, when Willy Brandt stepped down. Mr Scharping is, however, the third in just six years. In 1990, the SPD was defeated by the Christian Democrats, not least because of Mr Kohl's tempting promises of the joys of German unity; the SPD's pessimism was seen, at that time, as a kind of political party-pooping. In 1991, Mr Engholm was chosen as the bright new hope who could help to restore the party's fortunes. But he fell victim to questions of honesty regarding a tangled six-year-old scandal in which he was himself the victim of a dirty-tricks affair.

Mr Scharping yesterday called for a sense of reality and for unity within the party. Mr Rau, as acting party leader, also emphasised the need for the party, which has seemed in recent months to be in permanent disarray, to pull together. 'We owe that to the new leader.'