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LOCAL HEROES: No 21: Gerhard Schroder

In this age of virtue, when politicians are expected to act as though they were halfway to sainthood, regular appearances in scandal sheets would seem to be the wrong way to curry favour with the voters. Yet it is to scandals that Gerhard Schroder, once-obscure leader of the region of Lower Saxony, can attribute his inexorable rise; every controversy propels him nearer to the apex of power in Germany.

In Britain, Mr Schroder would be labelled a champagne socialist. But the good life for Germany's left-wing bons viveurs is more demanding than that. Drinking fine wines is only a sideline for the Social Democrats of the "Tuscany set". Jetting to Vienna for an opera at a company's expense, as Mr Schroder has done, is deemed more impressive.

Some taxpayers in his debt-ridden Land were shocked by that particular escapade, especially when they discovered his trip had been paid for by Volkswagen, the region's most important company, in which Mr Schroder's government still holds shares. But most agreed that their leader had deserved his little holiday and congratulated him for getting somebody else to foot the bill.

The episode, whipped into a scandal by the conservative popular press, was symptomatic of the way Mr Schroder can turn adverse publicity to his advantage. The break-up of his marriage this year was another example. Mr Schroder, 52, had run off with a journalist 20 years his junior and the tabloids were getting into sermonising mode but the object of their odium, instead of crawling into a hole, went on the attack.

If papers wanted scandal, he would give it them by the shovelful. By the end of an account of the demise of the marriage, readers were convinced Mr Schroder had been the injured party all along. Why, his wife even refused to make schnitzel when he got home from a gruelling business trip.

The story was told as a German Dallas at the court of Hanover, which under Mr Schroder regained some of the glory lost long ago with the departure of the local ruling family for England. His expulsion from the palace by his wife was transformed from a tale of marital infidelity into martyrdom.

Political disloyalty, which Mr Schroder has in abundance, has also kept him in good stead. He can take credit for shafting the Social Democrats' unpopular leader, Rudolf Scharping, last year. Mr Schroder sniped at his party boss until he was begging to be overthrown, which happened when Oskar Lafontaine mounted a leadership challenge in November.

Mr Scharping was readied for the kill by criticism from Hanover. What the party needed, Mr Schroder said, was a leader with strong convictions, charisma, and popular appeal. Although he fell short of specifying that the party boss should be called Gerhard, most people got the message.

As the lustre of the Lafontaine regime fades, the Schroder alternatives seems ever more alluring. The SPD is again in the doldrums. Its tradeunion allies have mounted spectacular demonstrations against the conservative government's austerity programme but have not made an iota of difference to the fiercest attack since the war on the welfare state.

"Somebody must stop Kohl," the cry goes out, no later at least than the next elections in 1998. Mr Lafontaine patently will not be able to do it, but Mr Schroder might. The left hates him because he seems to believe in nothing other than himself and the need to create a low-wage climate in which big business can operate.

He says outrageous things about left-wing economics and the common European currency that is so important to the German establishment - "monopoly money". But he is also popular in the country, the only SPD politician who could give Helmut Kohl a run for his money, say the polls. A few more headlines, however unfavourable, would go a long way towards ensuring his candidature for a party in kamikaze mode.

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