Kohl accused of indifference to socially excluded


Germany's opposition Social Democrats opened their party conference yesterday with a call for greater solidarity and social justice after 15 years of conservative rule. The party chairman, Mr Oskar Lafontaine, accused the centre-right government of the Chancellor, Dr Helmut Kohl, of indifference towards the weak and those excluded from society.

"Values have shifted. Selfishness is spreading through our society," he told delegates.

Congratulating Mr Rudolf Scharping on his 50th birthday, Mr Lafontaine presented his predecessor with a giant bunch of red roses. To enthusiastic applause, he said the red rose of social democracy had not wilted and that, in the age of globalisation, solidarity between working people was as important as ever. "We want a country where social justice holds sway once again," he said.

Mr Lafontaine condemned attempts by some German companies to put the interests of shareholders above those of employees and the local community. But he expressed support for a new economic policy drafted by his chief rival within the party, Lower Saxony's prime minister, Mr Gerhard Schroeder.

Mr Schroeder is more popular than both Mr Lafontaine and Dr Kohl and is widely expected to be chosen as the party's candidate to challenge the chancellor next year. But Mr Lafontaine, who has united the fractious party under his leadership, has not abandoned his ambition to replace Dr Kohl as chancellor, a feat he attempted unsuccessfully in 1990.

The party will choose its candidate at a special conference in April, a month after Mr Schroeder faces the voters in Lower Saxony. Mr Schroeder has promised to withdraw from the race if his vote falls by more than 2 per cent. A strong performance, on the other hand, could force Mr Lafontaine to step aside in favour of his rival.

Although the conference is being held in Mr Schroeder's home base of Hanover, most observers expect Mr Lafontaine to shine more brightly on account of his popularity within the party.