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Main German Opposition Party Dumps Its Leader : Politics: Rudolf Scharping is voted out of Social Democrats’ top post. Coup surprises even the newly elected chief.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Germany’s main opposition party, the embattled Social Democrats, dumped leader Rudolf Scharping at its annual party congress on Thursday and elected in his place the independent-minded governor of the southwestern state of Saarland.

Oskar Lafontaine, 52, is remembered foremost as the man who resoundingly lost Germany’s 1990 federal election to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a Christian Democrat. But five years later, that voting is said to have revealed more about Germany’s immediate post-Berlin-Wall euphoria than about the broader potential of either man.

On economics, Lafontaine has shown himself to be a free thinker, willing at times to support policies favorable to business, but at the same time calling on the state to protect workers.

On foreign policy, however, Lafontaine’s leadership is likely to herald the Social Democratic Party’s return to its pacifist traditions. He was a prominent opponent of Germany’s controversial decision earlier this year to allow its Tornado aircraft to be deployed in the Balkans.

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Lafontaine’s surprise coup--which seemed to surprise even him--was thus welcomed both by moderate business organizations and by many left-of-center Germans, who are disposed to vote Social Democratic but had become increasingly disgusted with the party in the final months of Scharping’s leadership.

“Now there are serious hopes again,” Greens spokeswoman Krista Sager said guardedly. The environmentalist party has considered working in coalition with the Social Democrats, but as Scharping’s party plummeted in opinion polls earlier this fall, the Greens pulled back from the idea.

Lafontaine’s main task for now will be to rebuild the decimated, 132-year-old party, rich in history and the home of such international figures as Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt.

Under Scharping--widely perceived as a worthy but uninspiring leader--the Social Democrats seemed to lose track of what they stand for, and the party fell prey to paralyzing power struggles. Last summer and this fall saw a steady stream of high-level resignations, and support from ordinary Germans fell precipitously.

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At the moment, only about 28% of Germans say they support the Social Democratic Party; the rating is the party’s lowest since the end of World War II. For Germans dissatisfied with Kohl’s conservative government, there has seemed at times to be no real opposition in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, nor any realistic hope of defeating the powerful chancellor in the next election in 1998.

Kohl has already been in power for 13 years, longer than any other chancellor in modern Germany.

The normally outspoken Lafontaine, whose name was added to the ballot just 20 minutes before the party held its leadership vote--apparently at Scharping’s own suggestion--looked stunned when it was announced that he had trounced his leader, 321 to 190.

“I know that I need Rudolf Scharping to work with me, just as I have tried to work with him in recent years,” he told ecstatically cheering delegates at the congress in the southwestern city of Mannheim while Scharping looked on stonily.

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Lafontaine’s healing words were more than just good manners. Scharping is still the Social Democratic Party’s faction leader in the Bundestag, and he continues to enjoy the loyalty of the various party members he appointed to fill key posts this fall, after the positions were vacated when other party members resigned.

Scharping still holds considerable power in Bonn and Lafontaine--as a state governor--relatively little.

Christian Retzlaff of The Times’ Berlin Bureau contributed to this report.


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