Jobs the issue in German poll

The chubby man on the podium addressing an election rally in the university square in Heidelberg struggles to raise his booming voice above the cacophony of whistles and boos.

He talks of war and peace and freedom, and of the common European home, but his message only seems to send the crowd into a frenzy. "What about jobs, Helmut?" they shout, hoisting placards proclaiming: "4.3 million unemployed".

Chancellor Helmut Kohl ploughs on, unruffled by this unexpectedly hostile reception at his alma mater. "We are Germans, we want to remain Germans, but we are German Europeans and European Germans." He then turns to jobs, but there is no place in his analysis for the European dimension of that dreadful statistic.

Until recently, European integration was recognised by every mainstream political party as the greatest national goal.Now all that has changed in the southern state of Baden- Wurttemberg and its picturesque university town. In Sunday's elections to the Land assembly, voters are being asked to choose between the European dream and the vision of a new economic miracle.

"Stability and employment take priority now - so postpone monetary union," urge the election posters of local Social Democrats, pioneers of the SPD's volte-face on Europe. They argue that the Maastricht criteria for monetary union shackle Germany, preventing it from spending its way out of recession. "I think we should set in motion a European growth and employment initiative at the Maastricht review conference . . . and postpone monetary union for three to four years," says Dieter Spori, the SPD's leader in Baden-Wurttemberg.

Whether this line is adopted by the national leadership depends on how well the party does on Sunday. The omens are not good. "I don't care what happens in 1999. What I want to know is whether there will be a job for me when I get my degree in the summer," says Rita Meissner, one of the students booing Mr Kohl.

Though the SPD's poll rating has gone up by about 5 per cent during the campaign, it remains a distant second behind the Christian Democrats. Even that modest rise has been attributed to another populist slogan which the SPD does not dare to daub across the walls: the call to keep out ethnic Germans immigrants from Eastern Europe.

The other parties are convinced that the SPD is barking up the wrong tree. "[Monetary union] is not an issue that will decide the election," says Walter Doring, the regional leader of the Free Democrats. At stake for him is the survival of his party, and by consequence the survival of Mr Kohl's government.

If the FDP falls below the 5 per cent threshold that bars the way to the three regional assemblies up for grabs on Sunday, then its leaders would feel compelled to leave the coalition in Bonn, depriving Mr Kohl of his majority.

"This is a question of existence not just for the FDP in Baden-Wurttemberg but also for the coalition in Bonn," Mr Doring asserts. At the moment his party is hovering around 6 per cent in Baden-Wurttemberg and neighbouring Rhineland- Palatinate, but is perilously close to annihilation in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Two out of three would be regarded as a good result, and Mr Kohl would be able to breathe a sigh of relief.