German election - the key players

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  • Gerhard Schröder
  • Angela Merkel
  • Joschka Fischer
  • Oskar Lafontaine
  • Gregor Gysi
  • Franz Müntefering
  • Volker Kauder
  • Guido Westerwelle
  • Horst Köhler
  • Peer Steinbrück

Gerhard Schröder

When a pilot smashed his light aircraft into the ground just a few yards from the German parliament and Gerhard Schröder’s chancellery, killing himself in the process, it seemed like a metaphor for the chancellor’s decision a few weeks earlier to call a snap election - and thereby crash-dive his political career.

Although the vote is not likely to be the landslide defeat predicted at the time, the odds on victory for Mr Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD) are slim.

High unemployment in Europe’s largest economy is the main reason for his unpopularity. The jobless rate has soared by almost 70 per cent since reunification and breached the 5m mark for the first time in January - meaning 12 per cent of the working population are now unemployed.

His manifesto illustrates the dilemma that will dog Mr Schröder throughout the campaign. He believes liberal reforms are necessary, but has been campaigning on a social manifesto for fear of infuriating his party’s left wing.

So, in spite of Germany’s need to reduce its budget deficit, Mr Schröder says he would neither raise value added tax nor cut public sector spending. Instead, his programme includes up to €16bn in demand-boosting measures.

This has spurred a backstage debate in the SDP leadership about the best outcome for the party on voting day: opposition or grand coalition with the right?

Mr Schröder has shown he knows how to court the leftwing vote - his opposition to war in Iraq helped his election campaign in 2002, although it damaged traditionally good relations with the US. This year he has again played this popular card, warning the US not to make war on Iran. David Crouch

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Angela Merkel

When chancellor Gerhard Schröder called a snap election it seemed the doors had been flung open for Angela Merkel, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), to stroll into power.

But a clumsy start to her campaign has emphasised that the election won’t be a walkover.

The daughter of a Protestant priest, Angela Merkel grew up in the communist east. Considered an easterner in west Germany, she is not seen as “one of us” by easterners. In the east she is struggling to make her mark. The CDU scores only about 30 per cent in the region, compared with over 40 per cent nationally, and is neck and neck with the new Left alliance led by Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD finance minister, and Gregor Gysi, an east-German lawyer once close to the communist regime.

She has shaken up the CDU’s socially responsible brand of economic conservatism, infusing it with more liberal ideas. Her stated aims are to reform the tax system, make the labour market more flexible, and recast the wages of a shrinking and increasingly expensive workforce.

But Ms Merkel’s tough-love manifesto is short on electoral sweeteners.

Her election campaign got off to a bad start when she blundered on the consequences of her proposal to raise VAT, then turned down two television debates with Mr Schröder, giving the impression she was shying away from her more charismatic rival.

Like Baroness Thatcher, the former British prime minister with whom - to her intense displeasure - she is often compared, Ms Merkel is a scientist, holding a PhD in Physics. In this somewhat fissile nation, she will need to find the right political chemistry to secure victory. David Crouch

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Joschka Fischer

The unruly Green, a high-school dropout who eloped to Gretna Green to marry his first wife, has been Germany’s foreign minister since 1998.

Since his early years as a left-wing activist in Stuttgart and Frankfurt, where he was involved in civil unrest, Mr Fischer has always been a bit of a renegade but has made credible a party in danger of being sidelined as a bunch of hippies and pacifists.

He joined the Greens in 1982 and three years later became the first member of his party to take a government post. The appointment - to environment and energy minister in the state of Hesse - was a contentious one given the party’s anti-nuclear image. But also because the new minister caused uproar by wearing a pair of tennis shoes at his oath of office. The shoes, now infamous, are now displayed at the German Historic Museum in Bonn.

By 1995 the Greens had replaced the FDP as the third force in German politics. In 1998 Mr Fischer led the Greens to their best ever election performance, securing the post of foreign minister in the process.

He has continued to attract media attention and was recently forced to apologise when pictures emerged of him attacking a policeman as a bearded young man. He also came to blows with pacifists in his own party by supporting the sending of German troops to war in Kosovo. Victoria Swainson

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Oskar Lafontaine

Germany’s voting system often leads to smaller parties playing a disproportionately large role. This time around Oskar ‘Red’ Lafontaine’s Left Party coalition could well become the third biggest grouping - and, quite possibly, the deal-breaker if not the deal-maker for its bigger rivals.

Mr Lafontaine began his political career in Saarland, rising through the Social Democratic Party (SPD) ranks to become chairman in 1987. However, he became unpopular for opposing immediate German reunification and in 1990 narrowly escaped an assassination attempt before losing a general election to Helmut Kohl.

Appointed finance minister in his arch-rival Gerhard Schröder’s new government of 1998, he immediately clashed with the more economically liberal chancellor, leading to his resignation just five months later. He withdrew as party chairman, gave up his seat in parliament and eventually quit the SPD after 39 years.

The new coalition comprises Mr Lafontaine’s WASG (Alternative Labour and Social Justice) group with the Linke/PDS - the successors to the former East German ruling party. It hopes to capitalise on discontent with the government’s reform programme with a high tax/social benefits platform. However, a populist anti-immigration streak has led to accusations that it is appeasing east German neo-Nazis. Polls suggest the coalition could become the biggest party in the east, where Mr Schröder remains unpopular. Daniel Pimlott

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Gregor Gysi

This talkative, charismatic east German leads The Left Party, the rebadged and resurgent Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), successor to the now defunct East German ruling party.

The party has suffered drubbings at elections in recent years, its association with the former communist state machine deterring west German voters.

But the 57 year old is nevertheless at the heart of this year’s general election as joint leader of the new Left Party coalition with Oskar Lafontaine’s group of SPD defectors.

Mr Gysi first came to notice as a defence lawyer in the prosecutions of several well-known dissidents during the 1970s and 1980s in the former GDR. He was later found guilty of being a Stasi informant.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was elected to the Bundestag in the first post-unification election for the PDS.

Briefly minister for the economy in the Berlin state government in 2001, Mr Gysi resigned citing bad health. In 2004 he suffered a heart attack and then underwent brain surgery, before giving up his heavy smoking habit.

The platform of increased welfare benefits and higher taxes, mixed with a populist anti-establishment rhetoric and aimed at the disaffected and unemployed could well produce a hung parliament at election time. Daniel Pimlott

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Franz Müntefering

A member of the SPD since 1966 and an experienced industrial trader who started in a medium-size metalworking company, Franz Müntefering succeeded Gerhard Schröder as party chairman in 2004.

Although seen to represent the traditional wing of the SPD, he has proven one of Mr Schröder’s most loyal allies. He has criticised profit-maximising company strategies and is now famed for comments in April 2005 likening foreign financial investors to “locusts”.

He was a member of the Bundestag from 1975 until 1992 and then again since 1998. From 1999 to 2002, Mr Müntefering was also secretary-general of the SPD.

Openly opposed to a pure market economy and “predatory” capitalism, Mr Müntefering’s social market rhetoric promoting state involvement to ensure economic justice has become increasingly criticised outside the party as high unemployment and slow growth persist under the SPD.

Publicly and in parliament, he loyally supported Mr Schröder in pushing ahead with Agenda 2010, a much-disputed package of economic and social reform aimed at creating economic growth and tackling unemployment.

While Mr Müntefering’s anti-capitalism has gained some popular and working class support, it has been met with disdain by employers and economists, and has been criticised for repelling further foreign investors who could benefit the German economy. Suneal Housely

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Volker Kauder

Volker Kauder, the CDU general secretary and party-whip, is the confidante and campaign coordinator of Angela Merkel and a staunch conservative with an organisational flair.

He took up the CDU reins when his predecessor Laurenz Meyer was forced to quit over payments he had received from his past employment with RWE, the power company.

Trained as a lawyer and plucked from the state of Baden-Württemberg, which has one of the CDU’s most powerful regional federations, Mr Kauder stands to gain a top cabinet position should Ms Merkel succeed in September’s election. He has spearheaded CDU proposals to increase VAT by 2 per cent to fund non-wage labour cost-cutting.

He raised eyebrows in January this year when he compared draft anti-discrimination legislation to Nazi and Communist laws, arguing that the legislation would require people to hold the same political attitudes.

Mr Kauder is also passionate about contemporary art and was a vocal campaigner against controversial modern artist Hans Haacke’s proposal for an installation in the open-air courtyard of Berlin’s Reichstag building. Suneal Housely

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Guido Westerwelle

In 2001, aged 40, Guido Westerwelle became the youngest chairman of the FDP after 22 years as a member of the liberal party. A year later he also became the youngest post-war candidate for German chancellor.

The same year, Mr Westerwelle was reproached by the media for being hesitant to reel in his deputy, Jürgen Mollemann, for the latter’s controversial public criticism of Ariel Sharon and the vice-president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews. The criticism laid the FDP open to accusations of anti-Semitism. Mr Mollemann later resigned, eventually committing suicide by jumping off a plane.

A drive to change the party’s image to a more “fun” and youthful one - including Mr Westerwelle’s appearance on the German equivalent of Big Brother - means the party has arguably lost some of its focus as Germany’s most pro-business party. It has also faced damaging competition from the Greens for the most affluent layers of the German electorate while Mr Westerwelle’s outing as a homosexual has alienated some of its most conservative voters.

At the last election, the FDP launched a glossy campaign aimed at achieving 18 per cent of the vote, but failed spectacularly when the share came in at just over 7 per cent.

In 2005 Mr Westerwelle’s optimism has taken a backseat to a more realistic look at the party’s future, with the FDP campaigning for a return to its traditional role of kingmaker, hoping to enter parliament on the coat-tails of Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU. Victoria Swainson

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Horst Köhler

With a doctorate in economics and political sciences, Polish-born Horst Köhler built his reputation in international finance, eventually becoming Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

In May 2004, supported by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party, he defeated chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s preferred candidate to become Germany’s ninth post-war president.

In his acceptance speech, Mr Köhler said he viewed the largely ceremonial role as “non-partisan”. Some, however, saw the appointment as an early indicator of CDU success at the ballot box, and others noted his support for Schröder’s tough welfare reforms.

Before his four year term at the IMF, he was president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Previous positions include president of the German Savings Bank Association, Germany’s deputy minister of finance and deputy governor for Germany at the World Bank.

Köhler agreed to dissolve parliament and hold early elections following Mr Schröder’s purposeful loss of a vote of confidence in July 2005, saying that in light of high unemployment and budget deficits, “the federal government requires the support of a reliable majority that is able to function”. The decision is still to be ratified in constitutional law by the country’s highest court. Victoria Swainson

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Peer Steinbrück

The Social Democrats’ Peer Steinbrück was until May premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous of Germany’s 16 states where the SPD has led governments without interruption for nearly 40 years.

Well regarded within the party, Mr Steinbrück has been mooted as a possible vice-chancellor should Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats, form a coalition with the SPD following September’s election. He has spoken in favour of such a grand coalition, telling the Berliner Zeitung: “The SPD has to constantly renew itself to keep up to date, but it should do so as part of the government.”

His defeat in the regional poll was the trigger for Gerhard Schröder’s decision to call a snap general election. He failed to win the polls for the densely populated state on the back of bad jobs figures, a problem that has also blighted the chancellor in the run-up to the national election.

A less well known fact about Mr Steinbrück is that he recently played an exhibition match against chess world champion, Vladimir Kramnik. He lost that too. Emmeline Ravilious

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