Genscher rallies his FDP troops

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A THOUSAND people gathered to hear an almost-retired politician from an endangered party. Not bad, considering that even the main players - Helmut Kohl and his challenger, Rudolf Scharping - get only a few thousand turning up to their rallies across the country.

The Free Democrats (FDP) have played a pivotal role in German politics. Indeed, the FDP's defection from the Social Democrats (SPD) to the Christian Democrats (CDU) enabled Mr Kohl to come to power 12 years ago. But the party has had difficulty in defining what its role should be, beyond being a counterweight to alleged 'extremes' on either side. The party is also seen as the party of small business - or, in a notorious phrase of Mr Kinkel's, 'the party of better-earners'.

The FDP is suffering a crisis of identity, as never before. In a string of regional elections in recent months, the FDP has failed to make the 5 per cent barrier, which would entitle it to representation in parliament. Current opinion polls suggest that the party may, however, still be re- elected to parliament on Sunday, despite all its trials and tribulations. It has regularly begun to bounce up above the 5 per cent mark - reflecting, to some extent, the pattern of previous election years, when regional defeats were followed by federal success.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany's former foreign minister, talked yesterday of the need for a 'liberal alternative'. But, perhaps just as importantly, he was selling himself. 'With your vote,' he told the little crowd in Witten, in the industrial Ruhr district, 'you can support me.' For that line, he got warm applause. Many were obviously sympathetic to Mr Genscher - even those who declared that they had no intention of voting for his FDP. Mr Genscher, one of the chief architects of German unity, still benefits from the overwhelming support that he enjoyed at that time.

He is by far the most charismatic figure in the party, but only recently made it clear that he was ready to throw his weight fully back into the electoral game, as the disasters multiplied. He is standing as the main candidate in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia - which includes Witten - and now appears on an election poster entitled 'The country needs strong heads', showing Mr Genscher and two other leading FDP figures, Jurgen Mollemann and Otto Lambsdorff, the former party leader. Klaus Kinkel, the FDP's leader and the Foreign Secretary, is ignored entirely.

'I think that the FDP will get in,' said one woman in the crowd. 'But Genscher should have joined in the campaign earlier. That would have helped.'

Jorg Winkelmann, a university mathematician, said that Mr Genscher is 'by far the best man that the FDP has got'. But he believed the party no longer deserves to be elected. 'The people at the top of the FDP are just careerists - they might as well be in the CDU. Genscher was different. He stood for detente - and he gave a different emphasis from the CDU.'

Antje Morgenthal, a nurse, suggested: 'Kinkel doesn't have Genscher's humour, or charisma. He doesn't seem to have come out from under the shadow of Kohl. The FDP has too little esprit. '