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Maverick German Politician Tries to Position Himself to Take On Kohl

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s late afternoon, and the cultural center of this northwest German manufacturing city is filling up fast. The stairway entrance is decorated with depressing unemployment statistics, but the mood in the ballroom is upbeat: A pianist is belting out amplified big band favorites, the tables are decked with bottles of on-the-house beer, and people are waving banners with slogans like “It’s About Jobs.”

The lights go down. The cheering swells as a man in a checkered vest introduces the evening’s speaker: Gerhard Schroeder, governor of Lower Saxony--a man with a shot at becoming the next chancellor of Germany.

“He’s no ordinary governor, comrades!” calls the master of ceremonies. “Where he fights for jobs, thank God, jobs are saved.” The crowd explodes with cries of “Gerhard! Gerhard!”

About 150 miles southwest of here, Chancellor Helmut Kohl sits in Bonn, as firmly entrenched as any democratic politician can be. He has occupied the chancellery for 15 years, longer than any German leader since Otto von Bismarck united imperial Germany in the 1860s. Kohl has far outlasted such celebrated counterparts as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, the Soviet Union’s Mikhail S. Gorbachev, France’s Francois Mitterrand and Poland’s Lech Walesa. Germans have taken to calling him “the eternal chancellor.”

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Even now, with the official unemployment rate at 12%, opinion surveys show that Kohl could win again this fall, when Germany goes to the polls to elect a new government. Kohl is fatherly, reassuring, statesmanlike. He may be blamed for record joblessness, but he still gets full credit for negotiating 340,000 Soviet troops out of East Germany at the end of the Cold War, without a shot being fired.

His Christian Democrats are a known entity, unlike the opposition Social Democrats, who enjoy a huge center-left constituency but are plagued by infighting and a lack of clear solutions to this nation’s most pressing problem: unemployment.

According to opinion polls, only one Social Democrat has a good chance of beating Kohl if paired against him in the elections this fall. And that is Gerhard Schroeder, the 53-year-old maverick taking the podium in Osnabrueck.

“I stand for many things,” he tells the crowd, ticking off a list of factories where he has saved jobs. “But not for standing still.”

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No indeed. The federal elections aren’t until late September, and the Social Democrats haven’t even named their chancellor candidate yet, but already Schroeder is running hard. His home state goes to the polls Sunday, and Schroeder is seeking reelection as governor, with jobs as his rallying cry.

His results this weekend will do much to determine whether the Social Democrats pick him as their man to face Kohl this fall.

Schroeder says that if his party wins less than 42.3% of the vote--it won 44.3% in the last state election, in 1994--then he will give up his chance to square off against Kohl. In that case, the honors will go to Social Democratic Party Chairman Oskar Lafontaine. The party executive board will pick the candidate within hours after the results are in.

Lafontaine wants more than anything to go head-to-head with Kohl this fall, and the leadership of his party would like to tap him too. Strictly speaking, Lafontaine deserves the chance, for he has served ably as party leader. Some polls, though not all, suggest that he stands a fighting chance against Kohl in an election.

But the burly upstart Schroeder stands squarely in Lafontaine’s way. Schroeder might not be the party leadership’s choice, but his shirt-sleeves manner and unconventional economic strategies make him the hands-down favorite of the Social Democratic rank and file.

The rivalry between Schroeder and Lafontaine reflects the core weakness of the Social Democratic Party: its inability to agree on a cogent economic strategy and a leader to represent it. Schroeder and Lafontaine may both be Social Democrats, but their personal styles and philosophies could hardly be more different.

Lafontaine, a skilled orator with a degree in physics, stands for the Social Democrats’ most cherished values: beefing up the German welfare state and putting workers ahead of shareholders.

Schroeder, by contrast, has been carving out an image for himself as a new breed of Social Democrat--a German version of Tony Blair’s “New Labor” in Britain. Though Schroeder hails from unimpeachable blue-collar origins--his widowed mother supported the family for years as a cleaning woman--he embraces big business as Germany’s best hope on the jobs front.

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As a member of Volkswagen’s supervisory board, Schroeder claims to understand how business works and says he’s the best one to help entrepreneurs create jobs. He promises to cut taxes for mid-size German companies and to free up the oppressive regulatory climate in Germany.

The German welfare state is not economically viable in its present form, he says, and needs overhaul. Union givebacks? To Schroeder, they’re just the price of staying internationally competitive.

Schroeder’s economic track record isn’t perfect. His state has the fastest-growing rate of indebtedness in the nation, and the second-highest unemployment in the former West Germany. Schroeder says he has slowed the rise of unemployment, but economists question his methods: Some of his job-protection programs have involved costly state interventions, such as his recent “nationalization” of a regional steel mill, to keep it out of the clutches of an Austrian firm that wanted to take it over.

But even state interventions are justified, Schroeder says, as long as they preserve jobs.

“It’s always better to invest in jobs than to invest in unemployment,” he tells listeners here in Osnabrueck. The crowd roars its agreement.

But how does Schroederism play in the conservative hinterland?

About 75 miles north of Osnabrueck lies the town of Papenburg, population 35,000, a Christian Democratic stronghold if there ever was one. Seventy percent of the voters here came out for Kohl’s Christian Democrats in the last election.

Papenburg lies on a narrow river, the Ems, and it used to be a shipbuilding center, with 22 local yards sending vessels down the Ems to the North Sea. Only one of those shipyards has survived: the Joseph L. Meyer yard, whose huge buildings stand as a proud, if incongruous, symbol of industrial prosperity in the middle of hardscrabble sheep pastures on the outskirts.

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Back in the 1980s, when low-wage shipyards in Asia were undercutting Germany, Meyer made a smart move into the construction of ultra-luxurious, one-of-a-kind cruise vessels, mainly for the American market. As a result, while other shipyards in Germany are bleeding jobs by the thousands, Meyer is adding employees.

“The Meyer yard is a prime example of what Schroeder is trying to promote in Lower Saxony,” says Hans Brauer, editor of the Papenburg newspaper. “A family business, not too huge, but which is able to win orders from all over the world. Innovative technology. No red ink. Schroeder is impressed by this, because he’s a doer himself.”

There’s just one catch: The Meyer shipyard is nowhere near the ocean. Before one of its tall, stately cruise vessels can sail off into the deep waters of the North Sea, it must navigate the treacherous shallows of the Ems River as it meanders through 25 miles of farmland.

This is a problem that only a master politician can solve--a politician with a beat-Kohl fire in his belly. Already, engineers have deepened and straightened the Ems, so much that environmentalists say it will no longer support aquatic life. That hasn’t been enough, and Schroeder is now pushing a remarkable scheme to build a $195-million dam across the delta, so that the Ems Valley can be flooded every time a sea-bound vessel needs to sail through.

Environmentalists in Papenburg are furious, but Meyer shipyard workers beam at the sound of Schroeder’s name.

“He’s our biggest friend,” says Guenther Kolbe, head of the works council at the shipyard.

But will this appreciation translate into votes on election day? Brauer doesn’t think so.

“People here are very earnest,” he says. “They’re conservative in a good way.”

Alas for Schroeder, last year he left his third wife and married his lover, a print journalist. And the year before that, he was caught taking a free ride on the Volkswagen corporate jet to an opulent ball in Vienna.

“People here like Schroeder’s work promoting business,” Brauer says, “but they don’t think he represents their core values. They hope he’ll be reelected governor, but they won’t vote for him.”


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