DUSSELDORF, GERMANY — GERMANY'S opposition Social Democrats, out of power for more than 10 years, have opted for a pragmatist to head their party. The question is whether their new top gun, Rudolf Scharping, can unify the divided party and unseat three-term Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1994.
Even though Germany is in the middle of its most severe economic recession since World War II, the Social Democrats (SPD) will have a difficult time upsetting incumbent Kohl - simply because of his well-oiled political machine.
The SPD is in urgent need of a strong leader, someone who can bridge the ideological gaps within the party that have grown so wide in the last 12 months.
The previous SPD chairman, Bjorn Engholm, tried to forge consensus on such party-splitting issues as the country's asylum law, reunification costs, and German troop deployment. Mr. Engholm, however, was forced to quit the party chairmanship last month after admitting he lied in an official investigation of a political scandal six years ago.
Party members have swung behind Mr. Scharping, who received a clear endorsement on June 13 in the first SPD poll of the grass roots for party chairman. He is expected to be confirmed as chairman at the SPD extraordinary congress June 25.
The party chairman and chancellor candidate are usually the same in German politics. Yesterday Scharping said he is willing to run against Mr. Kohl in 1994.
A regional politician who is a relatively unknown on the national scene, Scharping is described by one diplomat in Bonn as "sensible and workmanlike."
An SPD moderate, he is the governor of the west German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. He is part of the new generation of Social Democrats. When he was elected governor in 1991, he became the first outsider to break the postwar reign of Kohl's Christian Democratic Union in that state.
"I think Scharping has the ability to bring together the various wings in the party," says Reiner Millauer, an SPD member who came to hear the candidates for the party leadership debate in Dusseldorf on Sunday.
Mr. Millauer, however, admitted that the chances of an SPD victory over Kohl are poor. "Time is too short. It will take a while to rebuild this party," he says.
Scharping fans describe him as a realist and a good manager. But inexperience on the national scene and lack of charisma are two major strikes against him.
"Who knows anything about Scharping? He's fairly unkown," says Werner Hoyer, secretary-general of the Free Democratic Party - the junior partner in Kohl's coalition government, but also a coalition partner with the SPD in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Scharping, Mr. Hoyer continues, "seems to be too boring to challenge a power machine like Helmut Kohl."
In his speech in Dusseldorf on Sunday, the conservatively dressed Scharping trotted out the usual SPD causes: more jobs, more apartments, more emphasis on the environment.
In practice, however, he is far from the leftist camp in the SPD. For instance, he helped mold the SPD's compromise that led to a constitutional change and tightening of Germany's liberal asylum law. Leftists in the party consider the new law an abandonment of Germany's historical duty to protect the persecuted around the world.
And, unlike one of his competitors for the party chairmanship, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul - or "Red Heidi" - he favors the deployment of German troops in United Nations peacekeeping missions. Under certain circumstances, he can envision an even greater role for German troops abroad.
Yesterday, however, the SPD parliamentary group announced it will challenge deployment of German troops in Somalia by asking the German Constitutional Court today to make a speedy decision on the legality of the matter.
The party's parliamentarians argue that since renewed fighting in Somalia, the situation has escalated beyond a humanitarian mission for Germany and thus also beyond the country's constitutional restrictions on German troops.