Germany's Kohl in fight of his life Charismatic rival may defeat chancellor in elections tomorrow

September 26, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BONN, Germany -- Beneath a gilded clock at Bonn's Old Town Hall, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is battling against time and a chorus of hecklers who whistle and shout, "Kohl Must Go!"

During the last days of what is likely his final political campaign, Kohl reflects on 16 years in power, ticks off the world leaders he has known and the historic moments he has influenced.

Then, drowning out the hecklers, he bellows, "Consistency, duty, courage, all of this is not old-fashioned."

Thirteen miles away in the gleaming Cologne Arena, Gerhard Schroeder strides down the center aisle like a boxer pursuing a world title. The crowd of 20,000 stands and roars for the challenger.

"Germany has the choice, between a new start and stagnation," Schroeder tells the audience, "between powerful leadership and sluggish leadership."

This is the race to become Germany's chancellor and Europe's most powerful leader heading toward a new century.

The campaign reaches its conclusion with tomorrow's national election that now appears too close to call.

Down by as many as 12 percentage points in early opinion surveys, Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union have clawed to within 2 to 5 points of the left-leaning Schroeder and his Social Democratic Party.

A third of the electorate still declares itself undecided, and Germany's complex multiparty system virtually guarantees that a governing coalition will have to be forged after the vote.

In a campaign where style has edged out substance and no direct debates have taken place, the two men are serving themselves up as symbols of modern Germany. What divides them isn't so much policy, as personality and history.

The 68-year-old Kohl comes from the generation that knew first-hand the horrors of World War II and the tough task of creating Germany's postwar "economic miracle." To his supporters, Kohl -- at 6 feet 4 inches and 300 pounds -- is living proof that size does matter, that he is the big man who can help Germany withstand turbulent times.

Schroeder, 54, is angling to become the first German chancellor who was a child of the postwar era.

The prime minister of Lower Saxony state, Schroeder represents a new German generation that is at ease with itself and its place in the world. With his Italian suits, dyed brown hair and ice-blue eyes, Schroeder is the country's most charismatic politician.

Main issue is jobs

The central campaign issue is jobs. There are now almost 4 million unemployed in Germany, more than 10 percent of the work force. Germany's economic recession has eased, but the labor market remains burdened by rigid rules that make it expensive to hire and fire workers.

The main parties agree on the essentials to get the country back to work: cut taxes and reform the welfare state. But they differ on the specifics.

The Social Democrats blocked a government tax cut plan, claiming that it was too generous to the rich and too stingy to the middle class and poor. The Social Democrats pledged to restore a government-sponsored cut of the basic retirement pension. But most analysts agree that once in power, Schroeder will have to drop his all-gain-and-no-pain stance and begin to deal realistically with the economy.

"It's like the American campaign in 1992 -- it's the economy, stupid," says Franz-Josef Meiers, a political scientist with the German Society for Foreign Affairs.

But the campaign has centered on the contrasting styles,

personalities and careers of the two major contenders.

"In one way, they are very similar -- they are aware how important power is," says Juergen Leinemann, a Kohl biographer who covers politics for Germany's major news weekly, Der Spiegel. "They're not ashamed of wanting that power. That's very unusual in Germany after Hitler. Other leaders talk of responsibility. But Kohl and Schroeder know politics and policy need a power center."

Kohl, born April 3, 1930, was a child of Nazi Germany. Too young to serve but not too young to observe, Kohl was touched and molded by the war. He cleared rubble, mourned the death of his older brother, Walter, who was killed in an air raid, and saw a vanquished nation come to terms with the evil it had unleashed across a continent.

After the war, Kohl grew interested in politics and followed the footsteps of his father, who was a Christian Democratic leader in their home city of Ludwigshafen. Kohl became the quintessential young man in a hurry, studying law, political science and history. He filled a series of political posts, rising quickly in the ranks to chair the party, and finally becoming, in 1982 at age 52, Germany's youngest chancellor.

Self-made man

Schroeder comes from different stock, a self-made man who never knew his father, worked in a china shop at 14, got a night school degree and dabbled in left-wing politics before moving to the center.

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