Reversal of Fortunes

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It was an old-fashioned grassroots campaign meeting, with about 50 voters crammed into the Smokehouse nightclub on the outskirts of Kiel, capital of Germany's northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. A band played Dixieland jazz to warm up the crowd. Up on the cramped stage, four politicians from the opposition Christian Democratic Union used the informal "talk show" format now growing popular on German television to make their pitches to the voters. In front of a huge poster that declared "Work, the Future" stood Volker Rühe, a one-time German Defense Minister and erstwhile disciple of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. As Rühe finished a rousing speech about the state's need for more teachers and policemen, a hand shot up from the audience. "I have been a voter for the CDU for many years, but why should I vote for you now? How do I know you aren't just like the others?"

Why, the voter asked, had Rühe, by his own admission, never asked Kohl about the slush funds that the former Chancellor has admitted setting up in the early 1990s to handle unreported campaign contributions? It's a question being raised daily even in such quintessentially local contests as the race for control of the parliament of Schleswig-Holstein, one of Germany's 16 Länder. Rühe has seen a 15-point lead in the opinion polls evaporate in only three months as details of the Kohl scandal emerged. He has maintained that as Defense Minister and Secretary General of the party under Kohl he never knew about any fiddling of campaign finances. But the issue is haunting the CDU throughout the country and seems likely to doom its chances in the Schleswig-Holstein election this Sunday.

The Kohl scandal has been a gift to the ruling Social Democrats, who suffered a string of election losses last year after the Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, proposed sweeping budget cuts. "No one is talking about the budget anymore," laughs Heide Simonis, the state's current premier and Social Democrat leader. In fact, a survey by the Forsa polling group last week found that voters in Schleswig-Holstein now favored the spd by 44% to 37% for the CDU.

Johann Wadephul, the CDU's general secretary in the state, hates picking up the paper in the morning because it contains almost daily revelations tarring the party. One issue that has particularly hurt is the defiance of Roland Koch--the young CDU premier of the state of Hesse--who admitted lying about the party's finances, but refused to step down. "Koch is a great problem for us because people think, here is another young CDU politician who can't be believed," Wadephul says. He notes that Kohl had been told not to visit the state to campaign during the election--and now hopes Koch won't show up either during the final week.

With the national scandal eclipsing local issues, the CDU has taken to sniping at the poor handling of environmental issues in the state by the Green party, the spd's coalition partner. Their hope is that the Greens will get less than the required minimum of 5% for inclusion in the parliament, which might give a CDU coalition with the Free Democrats a faint chance of slipping into office. Which is really just another way of saying that Simonis and the Social Democrats are unbeatable.

With reporting by Silke Appel/Kiel