Scharping has tough task as SPD chief: Social Democrats pick a new party leader

THE NEW leader of Germany's opposition Social Democrats (SPD) will be Rudolf Scharping, regional prime minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, after a clear vote in his favour by the party membership yesterday.

Mr Scharping won 40 per cent of the vote. The two other contenders, Gerhard Schroder, prime minister of Lower Saxony, and Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, from Hessen, gained 33 and 27 per cent respectively. More than half of the 870,000 party members voted - a much higher turn-out than expected. Johannes Rau, the acting party leader, said this was a 'glorious result' for the SPD because of a turn-out 'better than we could have dreamed of'. This is the first time that members have been asked to vote for a party leader. The change was billed as being about greater accountability, but also reflected confusion within the party leadership.

The previous leader, Bjorn Engholm, resigned this year after admitting that he had lied about his knowledge of a dirty-tricks campaign against him five years ago. His departure left the party drifting hopelessly.

The SPD has had difficulty in capitalising on the unpopularity of the government, led by Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU). The SPD was defeated in 1990, when Mr Kohl was returned to power on promises that unity would be painless for all. Even now, when the unity euphoria has long since evaporated, the SPD has failed to grasp the public imagination. Instead, not least because of corruption scandals involving politicians of all leading parties, there is disillusion with politicians; polls suggest the largest single party is the 'non-voters' party'.

In recent weeks, support for the SPD has increased slightly, not least because of the worsening economic situation: the SPD is now a few points ahead of the CDU. But Mr Scharping faces a considerable challenge to knock the party into winning shape in time for elections next year.

The question of who will challenge Mr Kohl for the Chancellorship next year remains open. Mr Schroder made it clear after yesterday's result that he will not now be a candidate: he was in favour of combining the party leader and candidate for chancellor. Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD deputy leader, has thrown his hat into the ring. Mr Scharping refused to be drawn on whether he will stand.

Yesterday's grassroots vote is, in theory, only a recommendation. But it is certain to be endorsed by a meeting of the party leadership today.

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