'Vanished' leader poised to return to German politics

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The former leader of the Christian Democrats, Wolfgang Schäuble, is poised to return to the centre stage of German politics almost two years after he resigned in a funding scandal.

Mr Schäuble, 59, indicated yesterday that he might be prepared to run as the centre- right candidate for the Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) for the position of Chancellor in next year's general election.

That possibility was unexpectedly promoted by Michael Glos, the head of the parliamentary group of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party. Mr Glos said that Mr Schäuble was one of the three principal contenders for the job of leading the centre-right into the elections.

"The leadership of the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union consider Schauble to be one of the candidates for Chancellor," he said.

The statement was all the more surprising because Mr Glos's boss, the CSU's leader, Edmund Stoiber, is one of the two other leading contenders. The third is the CDU's party leader, Angela Merkel. She has, however, been undermined by internal opposition and by the party's disastrous performance in regional elections in Berlin last month, in which its vote fell by 17 per cent.

The Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, is still very popular and the CDU fears it will suffer a disastrous defeat next autumn.

Mr Stoiber, the Bavarian Prime Minister, has so far refused to commit himself to standing for Chancellor. He would probably put up a better performance in the election than Ms Merkel, who is seen by her enemies as weak. However, he in his turn is regarded by some on the centre-right as too right-wing and too Catholic to appeal to a country mostly made up of Protestants.

Yesterday, Mr Schäuble did not deny the possibility that he might accept the challenge. "It is no insult to be needed," he told a regional newspaper. But, he said, it would make no sense to talk about it now. The leadership of the centre-right had agreed to choose their candidate in the spring.

Mr Schäuble, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a gun attack in 1990, has mostly vanished from the public eye.

He was considered in the Nineties to be the natural successor to Helmut Kohl. After Mr Kohl's resounding defeat in 1998, Mr Schäuble tried to pick up the pieces as the party leader, but allegations that the CDU had received illegal funding forced him to resign. However, prosecutors indicated last Friday they are about to clear him of suspicion of perjury regarding the origin of a small donation to the party.