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Tuesday, September 1, 1998 Published at 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK

In Germany, it's personality not politics

By Gordon Corera
World Affairs Specialist BBC Research

German Elections
The end may be near for Helmut Kohl and his unprecedented 16 years in power, at least if the polls are to be believed. A July poll showed that more than two-thirds of Germany's business, political and administrative elite expected the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder to become Chancellor. His election would mark a new era not just for Germany but the whole of Europe.

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It is the vague 'time for a change' factor that is the key to this election - the same underlying feeling that propelled Labour to power in Britain in 1997 and President Clinton to the White House in 1992 after long spells in opposition.

Mr Schröder's Social Democrat Party has been exploiting this sentiment. The party has even used consultants from the Clinton campaign and run ads that aim to swing people's moods rather than focus on policy.

"82 million Germans are looking forward to a better future" runs one TV ad. "We've learnt a lot from US and British campaigns," said Detmar Karpinski who works for the SPD's advertising agency.

This year's campaign is short and more American than before with a focus on personalities and images rather than issues. Mr Schröder is more popular than his party and is further ahead when people ask who voters prefer as Chancellor.

Mr Schröder has worked hard to narrow the differences between the two parties and claim the centre ground. That leaves voters with a choice based more on personality and mood than substantive policy alternatives.

Meanwhile, Mr Kohl is still hoping to win on the 'trust' factor. As Germany approaches the launch of the Euro next year, Mr Kohl hopes the country will prefer to keep their trusty Chancellor and maintain political stability rather than voting for even more change.

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But opinion remains divided between those who feel that Germans above all want a change and those who argue that it has been proven dangerous to write off Helmut Kohl, especially with an improving economy behind him.

"Like a father figure, Kohl was a protective shield," said Britta Steilmann, a 32-year-old who runs one of Germany's top fashion businesses. "But he didn't want to evolve. He didn't want to grow _ I speak about him in the past tense because I think his time is over."

Defeat for Helmut Kohl would undoubtedly mark the end of an era in Germany. A Schröder chancellorship would be a generational shift in Germany with important consequences. If he wins in September, Mr Schröder will become the first modern German leader not to have experienced first-hand the Second World War.

An SPD victory also would almost surely change the way Germany acts in Europe and on the international stage. It may become more confident with less sense of an international mission and a more 'rational' foreign policy.

The Franco-German relationship may become more strained and open more opportunities for Britain to break through the grip of the Paris-Bonn axis. Mr Schröder says that he will not change from being pro-European but will look less idealistically at the project. As well as foreign policy, a Schröder era would likely be more self-consciously modern and image-conscious, similar to Tony Blair and New Labour in Britain.

With only a matter of weeks left until election day, it won't just be Germans who will be watching the race closely.

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In this section

At a glance: German election coverage

Schröder grabs the centre ground

Schröder on 'historic' election

Kohl steps into history books

Kohl concedes defeat

Greens negotiate a path to power

Green party: Joschka Fischer

The great European love triangle

Disquiet on the eastern front

Germany-Russia: End Of An Era?