Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EUROFILE: SPD Muddle Spoils Chance To Beat Kohl

Few Germans doubt that Gerhard Schr?der is the opposition Social Democrat with the best chance of unseating Chancellor Helmut Kohl in next September's parliamentary elections.

Unhappily for Schr?der, who is the head of the Lower Saxony state government, those few doubters consist largely of left-wing Social Democrat, or SPD, activists. It sometimes seems that the SPD left would rather lose the election than put in power a man whom they distrust almost as much as Kohl.

The SPD left's attitude to Schr?der is curious. Opinion polls consistently pick him out as Germany's most popular politician. The SPD has not had a taste of national power for 15 years, and Schr?der seems best placed to end that dismal record.

Yet, in the eyes of the left, Schr?der's popularity is not the solution but part of the problem. If Schr?der became chancellor, the left contends, then Germany would continue to have a center-right government, only under a different label.

The left made its preferences clear at an SPD congress in Hanover last week. Party activists gave a standing ovation to a speech by Schr?der's main rival, SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine, who railed against "financial speculators" and said the purpose of business was not to reward shareholders but to defend workers. When it was Schr?der's turn to speak, he received polite applause but nothing like the reception given to Lafontaine.

It is easy to see why the left is attached to Lafontaine, who hails from the Saarland on France's border and is known as the "Napoleon of the Saar." He offers the comfort of ideological purity. He also maintains a tight grip on the party organization and gives the SPD a discipline it sorely lacked before he became chairman.

Yet the left's memory is short. Lafontaine suffered a crushing defeat at Kohl's hands in the 1990 election. By dwelling in his campaign on the economic problems likely to result from German unification, he completely misjudged the public mood.

There is little to suggest that Lafontaine has learned the lessons of 1990. He persists in advocating policies that command only minority support among voters. As Germany prepares to enter a momentous period in its history with the abolition of the revered Deutsch mark, the incorporation of Germany's eastern neighbors into NATO and the European Union, Kohl seems a much safer pair of hands to most Germans than Lafontaine.

Even if the SPD as a whole displayed more common sense and made it clear it wanted Schr?der as its candidate for chancellor, it is by no means certain that he would take on the role. For he has dug a huge hole for himself by promising that he will withdraw from the race for chancellor if the SPD vote in next March's state elections in Lower Saxony falls by more than two percentage points below the 44 percent gained in 1994.

Only Schr?der knows why he has made this absurd promise. Why should the political fate of Europe's largest nation hang upon the choice of voters in Lower Saxony, one of 16 German states? If the SPD vote in Lower Saxony were to slip to, say, 41 percent, would that really make Schr?der unfit to challenge Kohl?

One thing is certain. The only person enjoying the confusion which passes for the SPD's election strategy is Kohl himself.