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Germany: Candidates' Tone Sharpens As Election Draws Near

With only five days remaining before the national elections on Sunday, Germany's political leaders have sharpened the tone of their speeches. Opinion polls indicate that the government led by Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder has pulled ahead of the opposition Christian Democrats after months of lagging behind. Schroeder's decision not to involve Germany in an attack against Iraq remains a major issue for the opposition, which has also sharpened its attacks on the government's failure to reduce unemployment.

Munich, 17 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The tone in the German election campaign has notably sharpened since opinion polls began showing Social Democrats steadily pulling ahead of the opposition Christian Democrats after months of bringing up the rear. Most commentators now believe the government has a real chance of retaining power in Sunday's election.

In speeches to election rallies across the country yesterday and today, opposition leader Edmund Stoiber used unusually harsh language to criticize Schroeder's decision not to support a U.S. attack on Iraq. He accused Schroeder of playing on people's fear of war to avoid discussion on the country's real problems, such as unemployment, which remains at around 9 percent of the labor force.

He said Schroeder was following the advice of the 16th-century Italian political statesman Niccolo Machiavelli, who is said to have told a ruling prince that if there was unrest in the country he should spread fears about a possible war. Then people would talk only about war and not about the problems. "And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what Schroeder wants: that there be no more talk about these [real] problems, but only about Iraq. He believes that by arousing fears of war, he can cover up the problems that he himself created," Stoiber said.

Stoiber's own position is that any attack on Iraq should be made under mandates from both the United Nations and the European Union. He opposes a unilateral U.S. attack.

Both Schroeder and Stoiber insist that the first step should be a return of the international arms inspectors to Iraq. Today, both men welcomed Iraq's decision to allow the inspectors to return but said much depended on whether Iraq allowed them real freedom to travel throughout the country.

Stoiber and other opposition leaders have also reopened the debate on immigration, which was a stormy issue earlier this year but subsided in March when the government pushed an immigration law through parliament by a single vote. Germany has the largest number of legal foreign residents of any European country, about 7.3 million of a total 82 million, or about 9 percent of the overall population.

In a campaign speech yesterday, Stoiber quoted statistics showing that the immigrant population increases by about 100,000 each year, a rate that he said was "irresponsible" when there were more than 4 million unemployed.

In a separate speech, his spokesman on police and security matters, Guenther Beckstein, said the government's immigration policy was hurting domestic security and was also damaging its economic future.

Beckstein recalled that the government had described the new immigration law as a step toward making Germany a modern, multicultural society. He said this was precisely what the opposition did not want.

Opposition spokesmen responded today with a reminder that Deutsche Bank recently issued a report indicating that the German population could fall from 82 million to 65 million in the next 50 years, including a 27 percent drop in the workforce to 30 million. They argued that Germany would then need immigrants to make up the gap, possibly as many as 500,000 a year.

Some spokesmen for the government parties have described the opposition's approach to immigration as "racist." Schroeder last night called it a "last-minute lurch to the right" and described it as an act of desperation that would not succeed in winning votes for the opposition. He said the immigration law passed by his government in March would not open the doors to unlimited immigration as the opposition feared, but would limit the numbers and steer the flow to those immigrants with the skills the country needed. "I believe it is an act of desperation, which will go nowhere because we have created a law that allows us to steer and control immigration," Schroeder said.

Many German commentators have noted that as the campaign has heated up, opposition candidate Stoiber has largely abandoned the careful, nonconfrontational image he has cultivated through most of the year. Stoiber is known in his native Bavaria as a flamboyant, passionate speaker. But in order to win support in northern and eastern Germany, he deliberately adopted a cautious attitude and a moderate tone in his public announcements.

Since the polls began to show the government creeping into a leading position, however, Stoiber has reverted in his speeches to his accustomed role of a hard-hitting political fighter determined to make his point.

Commentators say it is particularly noticeable in his comments about Schroeder's position on Iraq and on unemployment. Political analysts differ on whether it could bring him points at this late stage. The answer will be known only on Sunday evening.