German opposition seeks credibility: New leader has to convince voters that the SPD is fit to govern German opposition seeks credibility

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The Independent Online
RUDOLF SCHARPING, leader of Germany's opposition Social Democrats (SPD), yesterday fired a first campaign salvo in advance of a general election next year, declaring that his party should 'take responsibility for Germany'.

Speaking on the first day of the SPD party conference in the spa town of Wiesbaden, Mr Scharping, who became party leader earlier this year, said that the conference should offer an alternative to Helmut Kohl's government - 'a government of social ignorance and coldness, a government that is incapable of uniting, making decisions and taking action'.

In his 75-minute speech, received by delegates with polite applause, Mr Scharping argued that 'the decisive thing is whether we are good enough for the challenges which will face us in the years to come'.

The SPD is making a bid for electoral credibility after spending almost as long in the wilderness as the Labour Party has done in Britain. Helmut Kohl became Chancellor in 1982, so that some of next year's voters were barely out of kindergarten, when the Social Democrats last held power in Bonn.

Like the Labour Party, the SPD still has difficulty convincing voters that the opposition can provide a powerful, visionary alternative to lift Germany out of its political and economic gloom. According to the latest polls, the SPD is marginally ahead - 23 per cent, compared with 20 per cent for the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU).

By far the greatest number of voters, however, say they are disillusioned with all parties. A full 40 per cent reject all options, and support what might be called the None-of- the-Above Party.

The SPD's task is to mobilise the disenchantment to its own advantage. It has shown little sign of being able to do so. In the words of the Suddeutsche Zeitung: 'Rudolf Scharping has no programme so far, just one strategy - the strategy of a balloonist. The rule is to throw out ballast in order to rise higher.'

One of the main themes for the party is the battle against unemployment, which has risen sharply in both east and west. Even within the party, however, there continue to be serious divisions on policy. The SPD's deputy leader, Oskar Lafontaine, recently caused idignation among east German Social Democrats with his suggestion that east German wages should remain lower than those in the west to prevent further job losses.

On the eve of the conference, Mr Lafontaine had to retreat on his tough formulation. But yesterday he seemed determined not to be sidetracked on the issue, emphasising Germany's mounting debts and insisting wage differentials 'cannot be a taboo subject'.

If the Social Democrats have so far failed to persuade voters that they are the obvious choice to run the country from 1994, the government is hardly in a better state. Mr Kohl's continued insistence on his controversial choice for presidential candidate, the clumsily right-wing Steffen Heitmann, has made the Chancellor seem increasingly isolated, with criticism coming even from within his own party.

Mr Kohl is the great survivor of German politics: every hint of a palace coup has always ended badly for potential plotters. This week a clutch of ministers was at pains to deny any hint of disloyalty.

If rebellion within the ranks is dampened by party loyalty, the CDU's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), have few such hesitations. Despite Mr Kohl's unconcealed anger, the FDP insists it will not support Mr Heitmann to become president.