Challenging Helmut Kohl Germany: Social Democrats' youthful Schroeder caters to voters in a 'new middle.'

March 03, 1998

HELMUT KOHL's dream of breaking Otto von Bismarck's record as the longest-serving German chancellor may remain a dream, unless he can beat Gerhard Schroeder in September.

"The Kohl era is over," Mr. Schroeder, 53, declared Sunday night after being overwhelmingly re-elected to the governorship of Lower Saxony. Indeed, public opinion polls show he would handily beat Mr. Kohl, 68, if Germans were to elect their next chancellor today.

With more than six months of campaigning remaining, anything can happen. But time alone cannot save Mr. Kohl, the 1990 "chancellor of reunification" with eastern Germany.

In the past, he has repeatedly surprised detractors by staging electoral upsets. But now he may face his toughest test. Latest figures show unemployment in Germany has risen to 4.8 million -- the highest in more than 50 years. The problem is worst in eastern Germany, where more than a fifth of the work force is jobless.

Mr. Kohl had hoped the opposition Social Democrats' candidate would be the party's leftist leader, Oskar Lafontaine. It was not to be. Mr. Schroeder has borrowed pages from the political handbooks of President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and has been moving steadily toward a pro-business, centrist position, which he calls a "new middle" in German politics.

Mr. Kohl wants to be the Christian Democratic chancellor who leads Germany into a new millennium and oversees the adoption of a single European currency. Those goals are still within his reach. But after 16 years in power, the chancellor's time may be running out.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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