WEST BERLIN — The new all-German Social Democratic Party on Friday overwhelmingly endorsed 47-year-old Saarland Prime Minister Oskar Lafontaine as its candidate to challenge Helmut Kohl for the post of chancellor of a united Germany next December.
Meeting in the International Congress Center here the day after East and West German wings of the party voted to merge, 470 of the 482 delegates present backed Lafontaine, a controversial figure who has previously drawn the wrath of many of his East German colleagues for wanting to slow the unification process.
Addressing the party conference, Lafontaine detailed his party's plan to bring a united Germany improved living standards, better social security and greater environmental controls on German industry.
He warned Germans to resist the temptation to once again become a world political power.
"Feelings of strength are not good for us Germans," Lafontaine said. "We don't want to be a world power. We want to be a land of good neighbors."
He also repeatedly lashed out at Kohl, blaming the chancellor for higher-than-expected costs of unification and for the growing economic disparity between East and West Germany as unity approaches.
"What I didn't want on the eve of unity is that the West German economy booms . . . and the economy of East Germany collapses," he told the conference. "That's not the way I perceive unification."
By focusing much of his initial pre-election rhetoric on the speed and cost of unity, Lafontaine has tried to harness growing discontent among West Germans about sacrifices they may have to make to bring what is now East Germany up to their standards.
Several leading West German economists estimate that the costs of unification could run up to $60 billion a year over the next few years--a figure that would almost certainly require Kohl to retract a pledge made earlier this year that unity could be financed without tax increases.
Despite the spiraling costs of unification, however, neither Lafontaine nor his party has managed to pick up ground on Kohl in recent opinion polls.
One survey published earlier this week gave Kohl's center-right Christian Democratic Union and its coalition partners 52% support, with the Social Democrats trailing at 37%.
The Social Democratic Party is expected to win only one or two of the five state election contests scheduled for mid-October in the region that is now East Germany.
Political observers cite several reasons for the Social Democrats' failure to gain ground, including the two candidates themselves.
After surviving an attempt on his life last April, Lafontaine has frequently given an impression of ambivalence about his candidacy, occasionally taking controversial positions clearly against a majority within his party.
Last June, for example, his strategy to oppose the treaty on German monetary union was heavily criticized within his own ranks.
"Why should I endorse a treaty that is only going to bring suffering to people?" he asked at the time.
He later was forced to relent.
Such positions also led to his estrangement from senior leaders of his own party, including his mentor, former Chancellor Willy Brandt, and caused distress among East German Social Democrats, who had pushed hard for an early currency union.
By contrast, Kohl is widely perceived to have risen beyond himself in handling the run-up to unification, winning high approval ratings from voters.
Lafontaine's call for large tax increases to finance unity has also not attracted voter enthusiasm.