Germans set to fight dirty in 'Super-Election Year': As voters face 19 polls in eight months, revelations from former East German secret police archives could embarrass main parties

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IN THE words of one German headline, 'The first mud is spraying high'. Translated, it means Germany's 'Super-Election Year' - 19 elections in the next eight months - has already begun.

Roman Herzog, the conservatives' preferred candidate to become German president in three months' time, yesterday called for a ceasefire in the war of words. Mr Herzog, a senior judge, pointed out that 'each party can force the other side to its knees', with revelations from the archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police. He warned, however: 'The citizens are not impressed.'

But Mr Herzog's blandishments seem likely to be in vain. Church leaders declared yesterday they had more or less given up attempts to negotiate a 'fairness agreement' between the main political parties. Gunter Verheugen, party manager of the opposition Social Democrats, complained: 'It's pointless talking to pyromaniacs about how to combat arson, when they still have petrol canisters in their hands.'

In recent days, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have repeatedly attempted to damage Johannes Rau, the presidential candidate of the Social Democrats (SPD). The government parties have suggested Mr Rau was soft in his dealings with the East German Communist leadership, and that he may have been supported by East Berlin in his bid to become chancellor in 1987. One senior member of the CSU yesterday even called for Mr Rau to step down.

Mr Rau has reacted calmly, insisting: 'I am not worried for myself. But I am very worried that our democracy will suffer.' Hermann Otto Solms, parliamentary floor leader of the Free Democrats, junior partner in the government coalition, echoed that view, saying: 'Such attacks will backfire, and damage all democratic parties.'

Certainly, as the daily Suddeutsche Zeitung pointed out, all sides were involved - for tactical reasons - with the old Communist regime. It argued: 'Using (Communist Party files) in an election campaign is not despicable . . . but partly laughable, partly stupid.' Germany's biggest-selling daily, the conservative Bild, appeared to agree: 'Voters want to know what is going to happen tomorrow, not what happened yesterday.'

In that respect, the government has much to fear. Unemployment figures released this week took the jobless total beyond 4 million for the first time since the war. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung suggested that, if you count all the job-creation schemes, the figure could be as high as 5 million.

There is enormous disillusion with Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government, which has been in power for 12 years. The Social Democrats are now clearly ahead, with one poll suggesting 46 per cent for the SPD, against 29 per cent for the CDU-CSU. Almost every German newspaper and magazine has carried an obituary of the Kohl era in recent weeks and months. But only a small bounce-back factor is required - an upturn in the economy, a gaffe by the opposition, or 'the-devil-you-know' attitudes - for inevitable defeat to be transformed into a government victory. A grand coalition of both the largest parties is another much-discussed possibility.

Rudolf Scharping, SPD candidate to be chancellor, is trusted by most voters and scores well in polls on a whole range of issues - from decisiveness, to the economy. But, though Mr Kohl is clearly on the defensive, it is not certain that he is mortally wounded.

In Britain, Mr Kohl is often seen as a slow but amiable figure. In Germany, by contrast, he is seen - by admirers and detractors alike - as a politician of brutal determination. These qualities are likely to be seen in the months to come.