Kohl the survivor steadies his ship: Written off by pundits as a political has-been, Germany's Chancellor is now ready for a tough electoral fight, writes Steve Crawshaw in Bonn

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The Independent Online
JUST a few months ago, the outcome of Germany's coming election was clear. After more than a decade in power, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's time was up. Germany's most powerful magazine, Der Spiegel, carried a cover story proclaiming 'The End of an Era', and showed the back of Mr Kohl's head.

Other magazines and newspapers were almost equally categoric. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung talked of a 'mood within the party that the end has been reached'. The commentators agreed that the elections in the autumn would bring change at last. Rudolf Scharping, leader since last year of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), was widely profiled as 'The Coming Man', who would occupy the Chancellery offices in October.

How quickly can things change. The man whom the commentators wrote off in the new year as mortally wounded or a political corpse now seems ready for a more-than-bruising fight. The Spiegel cover may merely add to the already large collection of similar headlines that the Chancellor is said to have cheerfully amassed over the years. A German proverb has it that 'those who have been pronounced dead live longer'. It seems this may (again) be an appropriate phrase for Mr Kohl himself, one of Europe's great survivors.

Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats are still behind the SPD in many of the polls. But the gap has closed. Most alarmingly for the SPD, this has the makings of a familiar tale. In two previous elections, Mr Kohl started from far behind - and ended the race with a comfortable lead. Social Democrats worry aloud that Mr Kohl could repeat the trick yet again.

There are potential parallels between Germany today and Britain in 1992, where commentators explained, with equal cogency, why the end was nigh for the Tories, after more than a decade in power. Like Neil Kinnock then, the amiable Mr Scharping is seen by many voters as trustworthy and competent. He has made a brave attempt to knock his feuding party into shape. Earlier this year, opinion polls even suggested that voters trusted the SPD more than Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats on the economy, traditionally the conservatives' strongest card. Things seemed rotten in the state of Germany, and everybody wanted a change.

Recently, however, much has changed in Mr Kohl's favour. There are new signs of a pick-up in the economy. Forecasters agree that things will get better, not worse. Even Mr Kohl's famous and much-mocked phrase about 'blooming landscapes' in the east no longer seems so inappropriate, since it is clear that things are indeed on the move in east Germany too. The government was widely held to blame for the nation-wide economic slump in the past year. Equally, the government is now keen to take the credit for any green shoots of recovery that may be on the way.

Like the Labour Party in Britain in 1992, the SPD stumbled on the question of taxes. A fluffed statement at a press conference triggered headlines suggesting that millions of not so well- off voters would have to pay extra tax under the SPD. No amount of backtracking by Mr Scharping could get him out of the hole he had allowed the press to dig, and he was forced on to the defensive.

Beyond the specific issues, Mr Kohl's sheer resilience may prove to be an electoral asset when contrasted with the not-yet charismatic approach of Mr Scharping. John Major may pretend not to be bothered by the problems of his party; but there is no concealing the fact that he is sometimes close to political despair. Mr Kohl, by contrast, seems like an oil tanker, impervious to the stormy seas around him. As the unflappable colossus remarked during a previous low in his fortunes: 'The dogs bark. And the caravan moves on.'

One recent Christian Democrat poster showed Mr Kohl with the slogan 'Politics without beard' - a reference not only to Mr Scharping's facial hair, but also to 'bearded' or 'stale' ideas. Thus, with notable chutzpah, the ruling party is sold to the electorate as 'fresh', while the opposition is portrayed as tired and played-out, before even gaining power.

Party officials say that posters are being discussed for later in the campaign which are even more contemptuous of the SPD. One poster is to show Chancellor Kohl and the slogan 'Who else?', implying: 'In dissatisfied moments, you've toyed with the idea of voting for the other side. But when push comes to shove . . .' One only needs to imagine a similar slogan in Britain, to realise how remarkable is the provocative self-confidence such a slogan contains.

The self-confidence may, of course, be hubris. Five months is a long time in politics. At the beginning of the year, Mr Scharping was a full eight percentage points ahead of Mr Kohl as favourite to become chancellor. Now, they are running neck and neck. The trend of the past two months may continue, with Chancellor Kohl regaining favour, as so often before - familiar, determined, experienced. Or, come 16 October, Mr Scharping and his party may have pulled ahead once more, to be the electors' favourite - humane, trustworthy, new.

Few are willing to make the categorical predictions that they dared to venture just a few weeks ago. The only certainty seems to be a web of confusion in the lead-up to the election and, quite possibly, thereafter. The Christian Democrats' preferred version is a continuation of the existing coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP), but the FDP may not even make it past the necessary 5 per cent hurdle to gain seats in parliament. Among the SPD, some would prefer a coalition with the Greens, who look likely to perform well. Red-Green coalitions have already scored some notable successes, in regional government. Others in the SPD (including, for the moment, Mr Scharping himself) are wary of the Greens' most radical proposals, especially on defence, and favour a coalition with the ultra-respectable FDP. One possibility which could provide a half- solution is a 'red-black' grand coalition, involving both the biggest parties. In effect: change, but no change.

(Photograph omitted)