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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stoiber, Schr?der Spar Over Immigrants

BERLIN -- Germany's conservatives put the hot issue of immigration on the election agenda Monday in an attempt to reverse their slide in polls and distract from Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der's popular anti-war stance.

Desperate to get the campaign focus back onto domestic issues and off looming war with Iraq, the conservatives said that if they win Sunday's election they would limit immigration and do more to integrate Germany's 7 million foreigners.

Conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber said Germany could not absorb more foreigners with unemployment at 4 million and also blamed Schr?der's government for the financial woes of struggling telecoms group MobilCom.

On Sunday, the government announced a 400 million euro ($391 million) rescue package for the firm, demonstrating Schr?der's readiness to step in when thousands of jobs are at stake despite criticism of excessive state intervention in the economy.

Until Iraq and floods that swept Germany last month surfaced as top election issues, high unemployment and the stagnant economy had dominated the debate and kept Schr?der's Social Democrats well behind the Christian Democrats in opinion polls.

The conservatives tried to win back the initiative Monday by playing to popular concerns about immigration. Stoiber said that if he wins he would amend a new law pushed through by the government that grants access to more foreign workers.

"When one has more than 4 million jobless ... then it is irresponsible to open the labor market to everyone," Stoiber told ZDF television in an interview.

While immigration has topped agendas in recent elections elsewhere in Europe, boosting far-right parties and contributing to the fall of several center-left governments, it has barely featured in the German campaign. Stoiber previously avoided raising the issue to try to moderate his hard-right image.

Schr?der, whose SPD gained a two- to three-point lead over the conservatives in the latest polls, said the opposition's strategy was a sign of "helplessness."

"It is a desperate attempt to find a topic with which one can arouse emotions, but I think the public will see through it," Schr?der told a news conference at which he detailed the government's rescue plan for MobilCom.

Analysts said the move risked alienating centrists, but could help Stoiber.

"It's pretty late in the day, but the conservatives might just succeed by tapping into anti-migration sentiment," said Klaus-Peter Sch?ppner, director of the Emnid polling institute.

G?nther Beckstein, Stoiber's spokesman on interior affairs, told a news conference that a conservative government would crack down on abuse of asylum and make sure that new immigrants contributed to the cost of integration and language courses.

"We want to reduce the influx of migrants from outside the European Union to a socially bearable level," Beckstein said, estimating that the SDP's new law would lead to an increase in net annual immigration of significantly more than 100,000.

Schr?der stuck to his anti-war message at a rally of 8,500 people in Braunschweig, a central industrial city damaged by World War II bombing.

"Under my leadership, Germany will not participate in any military action in Iraq. To those who say we are endangering our friendship with America and elsewhere, I say this: Friendship does not mean that someone gives an opinion and everyone says yes, and amen," he said.

Stoiber, addressing 2,000 people in SPD-stronghold Dortmund, accused Schr?der of misleading the public by saying Germany would not participate in a U.S.-led war on Iraq. He also said Schr?der should be criticizing Baghdad not Washington.

Stoiber said Schr?der's government bore responsibility for the financial woes of telecoms operator MobilCom because it sold expensive UMTS mobile telephone licenses to the firm.

Stoiber, declared the loser of a television debate with Schr?der a week ago, said he was not throwing in the towel.

"It will surely be close but I am confident that we will win," he said. "Many will clearly decide only inside the voting booth."

Schr?der too was upbeat.

"Things aren't looking too bad for us in the polls. We are in a good position, but we must cautious," he said.