Social Democrats Buff Image as German Campaign Starts

SENSING that Chancellor Helmut Kohl's governing coalition is vulnerable, the Social Democratic Party, Germany's main opposition, has high hopes about coming to power in federal elections next October.

But in trying to realize their aspirations, the traditionally labor-oriented Social Democrats' toughest political opponents may prove to be themselves.

``The SPD [Social Democrats] wants to govern again,'' said a commentary in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. ``The questions are: What are its arguments, and how clear are [its] claims to govern?''

In the 12 years that it has been out of power, the SPD has been riven by infighting between its moderate and leftist factions, including pro-abortion, pacifist, and antinuclear interest groups. As a result, the party's radical programs have failed in recent years to attract the mainstream voters needed to win an election.

Putting the party on a middle-of-the-road path is SPD leader Rudolf Scharping's top priority. Achieving this goal, Mr. Scharping says, means the SPD must rethink some long-standing political positions.

At the SPD's latest conference, which concluded last week, Scharping took the first steps to transform the party he took over four months ago. First, he consolidated his leadership of the SPD, demonstrating that he has the will to win in October.

``I provide what everyone demands but no one loves - namely, leadership,'' he told the conference delegates.

Scharping went on to win approval for some nontraditional planks in the SPD party platform that are aimed at winning centrist votes. For example, demonstrating SPD toughness on crime, the party took a law-and-order position to expand the police's ability to monitor suspected criminals.

Scharping also pushed through an austerity-minded economic program designed to ease unemployment while keeping the lid on state spending.

Poll data indicates that unemployment and crime are the two most worrisome issues for German voters.

Though the Scharping-led SPD moderates appear to be gaining the upper hand, the leftist faction showed at the party conference that it retains significant influence.

In the foreign policy sphere, for instance, the SPD program maintained its pacifism, saying that German troops should only participate in United Nations operations that are peacekeeping, not peacemaking, in nature.

Chancellor Kohl and others in the governing Christian Democrat-dominated coalition argue that Germany must be willing to serve in potential UN peacemaking missions that involve the exposure of German troops to combat situations. Only if Germany is ready to act in military operations, the chancellor says, can it expect to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council - something that Kohl very much wants.

The debate over Germany's future military role could emerge as a key issue in the October election. The vote may be arguably the nation's most pivotal since the end of World War II, as it will greatly determine reunified Germany's course heading into the 21st century.

Popular dissatisfaction with the handling of the economy, in addition to squabbling among governing coalition leaders, means Kohl will have a tough fight to remain in power. But polling data suggests that a possible Christian Democrat (CDU) loss would not necessarily result in a clear mandate for the SPD.

A poll by the German ZDF television channel last week indicated that the two main parties are currently running neck-and-neck, with 38 percent supporting the SPD, and 37 percent favoring the CDU. But the poll also showed steady support for radical parties on both left and right. The left-leaning Greens enjoy the support of 10 percent of those polled, while 5 percent favored the rightist Republican Party.

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