Scharping restores opposition will to win

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The Independent Online
RUDOLF SCHARPING, leader of Germany's opposition Social Democrats, yesterday made a brave attempt to restore his party's damaged morale with a resounding call for party unity, ahead of parliamentary elections in four months' time.

'A majority is in favour of change - and there are urgent reasons for change,' he told delegates to a Social Democrat (SPD) party conference in the east German city of Halle. 'A party that believes in itself, will succeed.' Enthusiastic delegates gave Mr Scharping an ovation, for his confident rallying of the troops. 'Jetzt geht's los]' the delegates chanted as they applauded. 'Here we go] Here we go] Here we go]'.

The enthusiasm was badly needed. The party, well ahead in the polls just a few months ago, has slipped behind Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU). At the beginning of the year, most commentators wrote off Mr Kohl's chances of survival. Now, it is Mr Scharping who is treated as the likely loser. One headline this week asked: 'Can Scharping pull out of the curve?' But yesterday's upbeat response was more than just show. After Mr Scharping's speech, delegates spoke, in surprised tones, of 'the best speech that he has ever made'.

Mr Scharping hopes that he can pull off the same trick that Mr Kohl achieved earlier this year, when a 'we're-not-dead-yet' speech to a CDU party conference proved the start of a turnaround in the party's fortunes.

Mr Kohl's challenger yesterday demonstrated the same unshakeability that is Mr Kohl's own most distinctive quality under pressure. Mr Scharping told the conference: 'I admit, I'm not flexible. Perhaps that has to do with backbone.' He argued that 'values and ideals' should be more important than tailoring policies to the latest opinion polls. He told the delegates - and, as importantly, the television cameras which would broadcast his message to the nation: 'We want to rule. We can rule. And we will rule.'

Mr Scharping called for 'fair chances' for all. As important, however, was the underlying message: that the Social Democrats have regained the will to win. He rebuked those who have argued that the SPD should align itself with the Greens, and demanded 'an end to this coalition debate'. Mr Scharping delivered a public rebuke, too, to Gerhard Schroder, Prime Minister of the north-western region of Lower Saxony and his clearest rival, telling him: 'It would be good if we were to talk more directly to each other.' Mr Schroder's criticisms of Mr Scharping have received extensive media coverage in recent days.

The SPD's poor recent performance - including the acknowledged defeat, in the European elections this month - has been blamed by some in the party on the failure to provide policies distinctively different from those offered by Mr Kohl. But Mr Scharping argued against what he called 'weathervane' politics, and made it clear that he is not ready to snuggle up to the radical Greens.

At the end of the meeting, Mr Scharping was endorsed as SPD candidate for chancellor, with 95 per cent of votes.