Scharping's clarion call fails to ignite weary east

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The Independent Online
THEY were polite enough. But there could be no talk of wild enthusiasm. When Rudolf Scharping, the would-be German chancellor, arrived on his special train in the eastern German city of Leipzig, the small and curious crowd on the station platform gazed silently at the disembarking troupe. Even when Mr Scharping arrived for the rally in the city's central market square, there was only scattered applause.

About 3,000 people gathered to see Mr Scharping, the Social Democrat leader - far fewer than for Chancellor Kohl in Leipzig the previous night. Mr Kohl draws supporters and opponents alike. As Mr Scharping's aides acknowledge, only the loyal come to Mr Scharping's events. Even after months of campaigning he does not have the pulling power of fame.

Mr Scharping's main promise is that he will create a 'juster Germany'. Specific pledges for the more equal distribution of child benefits, for example, went down well. There was little charisma, but quiet acceptance. As one woman at the meeting said: 'The rich should pay more. That's why I'll vote for Scharping.'

Leipzig is where the East German revolution began. On 9 October, five years ago, 50,000 demonstrators defied the threat of a Tiananmen- style massacre - the order to shoot had been given and was more or less public - and forced the authorities to back down, marking a crucial moment in the collapse of the Communist regime. Before his speech, Mr Scharping visited the Nikolaikirche, the church that was the focus of the demonstrations in autumn 1989. In a diplomatic nod to local pride, Mr Scharping suggested that 9 October would be a more appropriate national holiday than 3 October, the anniversary of German unity. Not surprisingly, Leipzigers applauded.

At the end of a long year of elections, there is little sense of excitement on either side. In March 1990, just before the first free East German elections, 300,000 Leipzigers came to hear Mr Kohl speak. This week, about 5,000 came.

Half that number came to hear Mr Scharping. Still, a choice will soon be made, even if without great enthusiasm. A week tomorrow, Mr Scharping hopes to oust Mr Kohl from the chancellor's office that he has occupied for the past 12 years. Opinion polls suggest that the contest is still open.

At the beginning of the year Mr Scharping had a clear lead. Then Mr Kohl moved ahead. Now the two may be, in Mr Kohl's own phrase, 'neck and neck'. Up to 30 per cent say they are undecided. Polls suggest that Mr Scharping remains in the same position that he has occupied for several weeks.

Combined support for the Social Democrats (SPD) and their probable allies, the Greens, comes to just less than the support for Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU). Many polls suggest that the Free Democrats, Mr Kohl's junior coalition partners, will win less than 5 per cent. In that case, they will be excluded from parliament altogether.

Meanwhile, the PDS, successor party to the East German Communists, might be able to tip the balance, if they lend support to the SPD after 16 October. This is the catch for Mr Scharping, who has repeatedly said he would not accept that support. And yet, if he faces a choice between cutting a half-deal with the PDS, and leaving Mr Kohl in office, with a grand coalition between SPD and CDU, he will be under considerable pressure to take the option that says goodbye to Mr Kohl.

Mr Kohl has repeatedly used this prospect as a way of persuading people, especially in the west, not to vote for the SPD. According to Mr Kohl's scenario, a vote for the SPD is an indirect vote for the Communists.

In the east, many see things rather differently. The PDS, a grumbling opposition, is no longer an object of fear. Instead it takes its vote from the disillusioned, and is thus a particular threat to the SPD. As Mr Scharping suggested in Leipzig, 'Mr Kohl needs this party (the PDS) because he hopes the forces against him will be split'.

The PDS's slogan declares that 'Change begins with opposition'. But Mr Scharping was keen to insist: 'People who say they only want opposition fail to recognise that change is better than opposition.' SPD election posters in the east argue that only a new government, in other words a Social Democratic government, can bring about that real change.

(Photograph omitted)