Germany's Social Democrats Try to Shake a Leftist Legacy CHALLENGING CHANCELLOR KOHL
Justin Burke, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
FOR Germany's Social Democratic Party, the path to power will entail making a break with the past.
With Chancellor Helmut Kohl's governing coalition weakening, experts here say the Social Democratic Party (SPD) stands its best chance in 12 years of gaining power.
But there is still plenty of time to go until federal parliamentary elections in October. And if the Social Democrats are to succeed in their quest, they will not just have to out-duel a wily and seasoned campaigner in Mr. Kohl. They will also have to effectively contend with the legacy of the party's previous campaigns.
Many political observers say that over the last decade, left-leaning SPD leaders have often acted as their own worst enemies, advocating radical social and economic policies destined to alienate mainstream voters.
But this year's SPD campaign will be different, some observers say. The party has a new leader, Rudolf Scharping, and a new attitude.
"The mood in the party has completely changed," says Karl Kaiser, director of the German Society for Foreign Policy. "The left still has the majority of the party, but it is slowly coming to its senses, realizing that the world has changed."
Mr. Scharping will have the chance to exhibit the SPD's new face this week when he makes a five-day trip to the United States. The visit includes a meeting with President Clinton, giving the US administration a chance for a close-up look at the man who may be in charge in Germany after October.
US officials are not the only ones wanting to get a better feel for the bearded Scharping. The cautious middle of the German electorate is also trying to size up the Social Democratic leader, wondering if Scharping indeed represents a new style of SPD leadership.
Convincing enough centrist voters that the Social Democrats have what it takes to govern will be perhaps Scharping's biggest challenge over the next six months.
Founded in 1875, the SPD historically has been one of the leading political forces during Germany's two attempts at parliamentary democracy in the 20th century. But the party's number of seats in parliament have not always translated into power.
During the turbulent Weimar Republic period, Social Democrats held the most seats of any party in the fractious parliament until 1930. Nevertheless, the SPD was reluctant to take on the responsibility of governing during the Weimar era, often refusing to make the necessary policy compromises needed to attract middle-of-the-road voters, or form coalitions with small centrist parties.
The SPD's decision to serve as a virtual professional opposition party facilitated Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, contend some German historians, including leading historian Eberhard Kolb of Cologne University.
In the post-World War II era, SPD-led coalitions governed Germany from 1969-1982. …