Kinkel poised to oust leadership rivals

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KLAUS KINKEL, the German Foreign Minister, seems to have outpaced all his political rivals for the leadership of the Free Democratic Party from a standing start. He is likely to take charge of the small but influential FDP when Otto Lambsdorff, the current leader, retires in June, despite only two years as a party member.

'After careful reflection, which was not easy, I have decided to put myself forward at the FDP party congress in June as a candidate for the party chairmanship,' Mr Kinkel told an FDP meeting yesterday, confirming expectations. 'And when I stand for election, I also want to win.'

There is unlikely to be much opposition. Jurgen Mollemann, Mr Kinkel's main FDP rival, resigned in disgrace from the coalition government this week after allegations that he used his office to promote relatives' business interests.

Mr Kinkel was a protege of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany's former foreign minister and an FDP heavyweight who was himself leader of the party for 11 years. He worked for Mr Genscher at the Foreign Ministry, moving to head the BND, Germany's intelligence service, and was state secretary in the Justice Ministry for eight years before becoming Justice Minister in 1991. He only joined the FDP in February 1991 though his sympathies were well known to colleagues.

This background has not prevented Mr Kinkel from engineering a swift ascent following the political demise of Mr Mollemann. His rise also involved stepping over Irmgard Schwaetzer, the FDP's first choice to succeed Mr Genscher as foreign minister.

Mr Kinkel faces a series of stiff tasks in his new job. He must revitalise the party before elections in 1994. The FDP has been an essential junior partner in coalition governments for 23 years, and has become regarded as the kingmaker of German politics.

He has to handle one of the government's toughest portfolios as Foreign Minister. Mr Kinkel has been more outspoken than his predecessor, especially on Yugoslavia, but has made no big departures in policy, as befits a man schooled by Mr Genscher. 'I stand for absolute continuity in our European and transatlantic policies,' he said yesterday. Another role is likely to be that of vice-chancellor to Helmut Kohl.

His tasks may become increasingly difficult to square. With the popularity of Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats in decline, Mr Kinkel may come under pressure to differentiate the party more sharply.