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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
German election diary: 15 Sep
Ray Furlong
By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Saarbruecken, Germany

New Left leader Oskar Lafontaine
Oskar Lafontaine: Campaigning against SPD and CDU

The plane to Saarbruecken is so cramped I have to bend double and waddle down the aisle.

Breakfast is served in a little blue box, containing a miniature sandwich and fruit salad. Later, lilliputian chocolate bars are distributed.

Conditions like these are no place for political opponents to meet. But that's just what happens.

On the seat behind me sits Heiko Maas, the Social Democrat (SPD) leader in the Saarland. He's hardly had time to uncrumple his newspaper before Gregor Gysi gets on - one of the star candidates for Die Linke - the new left party that's trying to grab his votes.

Mr Gysi will be the special guest later in the day, when Die Linke's biggest attraction speaks: Oskar Lafontaine.

Lafontaine effect

Mr Lafontaine was once the SPD prime minister of the Saarland, but has since switched coats.

At Saarbruecken airport I ask Mr Maas about Mr Lafontaine.

Map

"Many of our party activists used to stick up his posters. Now he's fighting against us," he remarks.

And indeed he is.

At a rally by the state theatre in Saarbruecken, Mr Lafontaine is equally dismissive of both the Social Democrat Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and the conservative challenger, Angela Merkel.

"The people of Germany have the choice of whether they want Merkel or Schroeder to continue cutting back the welfare state, because that's what stands in both of their programmes," he says.

"But that is no choice! The only difference between Merkel and Schroeder is the hair style!"

That goes down well with the crowd, who are enjoying the sunshine with ice creams or beer and sausages.

But elsewhere in town, on the quaint old town square, there is ambivalence about Mr Lafontaine.

"OK, he's a Saarlander, so that's a little bit positive, but he's really radical in his politics and speeches. So I have mixed feelings about him," says a lady perusing a flower stall.

MAKE-UP OF BUNDESTAG
Bundestag
1. Social Democrats (SPD): 249
2. Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU): 247
3. Greens: 55
4. Free Democrats (FDP): 47
5. Others: 3

"He only says what's popular and what the people want to hear, but there's nothing behind it," says a young man passing by with his middle-aged parents.

The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) in the Saarland are behaving as if this has nothing to do with them. Posters of the state Prime Minister, Peter Mueller, promise he'll be "strong for the Saarland".

Mr Mueller has been earmarked by Angela Merkel as economy minister if she wins the election.

"Saarland's Prime Minister Peter Mueller has achieved a breakthrough in fighting unemployment," says the CDU website.

"The state government is focusing clearly on innovation. Today, the Saarland is one of the top regions in Germany and Europe for science - above all in IT and biotechnology."

Hi-tech ambitions

Is this true?

A phone call to the national statistics office reveals that the unemployment rate in the Saarland stands at 10.5%.

In 1999, when Mr Mueller took office, it was... 10.5 percent.

However, a visit to the leafy campus of Saarbruecken University suggests that innovation is playing a key role in transforming a local economy that until recently was dominated by steel and coal.

"Contacts with special industries, and the growth of special industries, have been enhanced. For example nano- and bio-technologies have been supported,' says Ludwig von Bernus, the President of Qworld - a company based on the campus.

Qworld sells ultra-sensitive testing equipment around the world - among its customers is the American space agency Nasa.

"The Saarland is a small state, you can always get a minister on the phone," says Mr von Bernus.

"Lafontaine was not bad, although he's changed. Mr Mueller has developed more towards the hi-tech sector... I will be voting conservative."




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