The man with his eyes on Kohl's prize: Germany's opposition leader, Rudolf Scharping, tells Steve Crawshaw of his party's plans should it win on 16 October

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The Independent Online
RUDOLF SCHARPING is the man who hopes to break Helmut Kohl's 12-year hold on power. Chosen as the Social Democrat leader last year, his fortunes have risen, fallen, and may be rising once more. A poll this week suggested that the Social Democrats and their potential coalition allies, the Greens, could have a clear lead over the Christian Democrats when Germany votes in two weeks' time. Mr Scharping, 46, gave an interview to the Independent, La Repubblica, El Pais and Le Monde. The papers have prepared a special supplement on Germany, published next Tuesday, to mark the election and the fourth anniversary of German unity.

Your opponents say that if the Social Democrats win the elections on 16 October, you will create 'a different republic', if necessary with the help of Communists. How do you respond to that accusation?

We do not want a different republic but a different set of policies. As regards the PDS (successors to the East German Communists) I assure you that I will not put myself forward to be elected by the parliament as chancellor if a single vote from the PDS is needed. And no other Social Democrat politician will do so.

But you also said that before the elections in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt - and yet, last June, a Social Democrat (SPD) minority government was created there by grace of the PDS.

We did not use a single vote from the PDS in Saxony-Anhalt . . . And, I might add, we Social Democrats are the only ones who have fought hard for the PDS not to get into the parliament, the Bundestag. Chancellor Kohl clearly has an interest in the Communists staying in the Bundestag.

You are conducting the campaign as a threesome - the 'troika', of yourself, Oskar Lafontaine and Gerhard Schroumlautder. Is that not a sign of weakness?

A strong leadership needs strong people to be involved in the discussion. Achievement comes from co-operation. It is a weakness of the 'Kohl system' that good, independent thinkers no longer play any role.

Does your programme have the confidence of business leaders?

You must remember that the German economy cannot be seen as identical with the leaders of business associations, who are often active members of the CDU. I know many businessmen. They do not think in party political terms, but soberly and with regard to the facts. There will be no raising of the general level of taxes in Germany. The state already takes around 52 per cent of the gross national product.

What do you think of the idea of a 'core Europe', where some countries would move faster towards political and economic union than others, as suggested in a recent set of proposals by the Christian Democrats?

This idea is wrong. And it is really not in our interests for Germany, of all countries, to send a signal like this . . . at a time when there are worries about a new German dominance on the Continent. There cannot be first- and second- class members of the European Union. Of course, in the process of European integration there may be different speeds . . . But we cannot have differences on a common foreign and security policy.

Incidentally, I see no contradiction between widening and deepening the European Union. I would prefer Britain to be more involved in social union. We are at a decisive crossroads. Either we fall back into the old nationalisms or we create a new, deepened federalism in Europe.

The theme 'Nation' is increasingly a subject of intellectual discussion in Germany. Is it more difficult for a German than another European to be proud of his own country?

Absolutely. In Germany, we cannot have such an easy relationship with our history as other nations do. The cruelty and the bitter suffering which Nazism brought to other nations cannot be forgotten. But we can be proud of our homeland, the country where we live and work, and even prouder of our constitution, and of democracy.

The use of 'Land of Hope and Glory' in one of your television election spots caused much offence in some sections of the British press, with headlines like 'Hans Off'. Do you regret the choice?

The election spot has apparently been very successful. Elgar's music undoubtedly helped. The British should be pleased.

And how you rate your chances, on 16 October?

Fifty seven per cent of the population wants a change. At the beginning of the year, our ratings in the opinion polls were unrealistically high. Then, they were unrealistically low. A lot can happen in two weeks.

(Photograph omitted)