YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Bavarian Leader Bucks Tradition, Eyes Nomination

Germany: Gov. Edmund Stoiber makes a play against main party chief for the chance to run against Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.


BERLIN — With the polite observation that he would run for chancellor if asked, Bavaria state Gov. Edmund Stoiber kicked off this year's German election campaign Tuesday and opened a second front in the political battle--with his own conservative allies.

The role of chancellor candidate usually falls to the head of the country's main conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union. The only time that Stoiber's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, usurped the honor of putting forward a challenger was in 1980, when Franz Josef Strauss went down to a defeat of historic proportions.

But the Christian Democrats' leader, Angela Merkel, has so failed to inspire conservatives that support has measurably wandered toward the charismatic, if often controversial, Stoiber in the search for a challenger with any chance of unseating Social Democratic incumbent Gerhard Schroeder.

"The CSU has created clarity. Now it's the CDU's move," Friedrich Merz, parliamentary leader for both conservative parties, observed Tuesday in what amounted to a call for Merkel, who also recently expressed her desire to run for chancellor, to step aside.

In interviews ahead of this week's Christian Socialist campaign strategy meeting in the Bavarian spa town of Wildbad Kreuth, Stoiber let it be known that after three decades in Bavaria's political trenches, he's ready to make the leap to national politics in the Sept. 22 vote.

"If it is the desire of both parties, I am prepared to place myself in the service of our common cause," Stoiber told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper before the conference, urging the two conservative party hierarchies to make their choice soon.

On Tuesday, in a speech to fellow party leaders, he vowed to ensure a harmonious approach to the election with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. Despite the professions of solidarity, however, his declaration amounts to an end run around Merkel that has been hailed by party stalwarts. Merkel might be the politically correct choice, they acknowledge, but she appears destined to lose.

"It is right and necessary that we have someone leading this campaign who has both the personal success and grasp of matters to feel at home with these complicated themes," leading Christian Socialist lawmaker Michael Glos said of Stoiber's experience governing Germany's most prosperous state.

Glos urged Merkel to do what is best for the conservative cause and support Stoiber.

As architect of the "laptops and lederhosen" economic formula that has developed high-tech industries alongside traditional tourism, Stoiber has led Bavaria out of the economic morass afflicting the rest of the country and much of Europe. That regional track record positions him well to spotlight Schroeder's greatest weaknesses--his failure to reduce unemployment and the evaporation of the country's short-lived growth trend during his tenure.

Merkel, 47, has support in the formerly Communist eastern states, where she grew up, and among many conservative women. But she has never governed a state, and her only public administration experience was a brief term as environment minister under her mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Merkel is credited with leading the conservatives out of the scandal that followed the discovery two years ago that Kohl and his lieutenants had routinely accepted secret campaign donations that investigators have construed as bribes. But she has failed to put any personal stamp on the party and is often overshadowed by its more established members.

Opinion polls indicate that the 60-year-old Stoiber is likely to fare far better than Merkel in a race against Schroeder, although neither conservative is outpacing the left-of-center chancellor at the moment.

Asked by the Forsa research institute which candidate would put up the better fight, 68% of 2,509 respondents chose Stoiber, compared with 20% for Merkel, this week's Die Woche newspaper reported. The pollsters also found that only 29% of voters would support Merkel against 50% for Schroeder, whereas a Stoiber candidacy would result in a split of only 8 percentage points, with Schroeder garnering 44% to the Bavarian's 36%.

On Monday, even Merkel appeared to acknowledge the inevitability of a Stoiber campaign. She told a late-night talk show that the conservatives should run the candidate "who has the best chance of winning."

Despite Schroeder's current lead and enduring popularity, the choice of a challenger is more than a formality. Political analysts expect German voters to begin focusing on their economic woes as the campaign heats up.

Los Angeles Times Articles