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Monday, 28 February, 2000, 14:45 GMT
Who can save the CDU?

Angela Merkel with departing leader Schaeuble
After the resignation of Wolfgang Schaeuble, Helmut Kohl's hand-picked successor, the Christian Democratic Union has been left in need of a replacement capable of serving as more than just another caretaker.

But many of the contenders for party leadership are either divisive figures or they lack the experience to undertake the massive job of saving the CDU.

Merkel: New broom who could split the party
Admissions and allegations of financial irregularity have put huge pressure on a deeply divided party, split between those who want to press ahead with legal action against Mr Kohl and those loyal to the memory of the man they once obediently followed.

At the head of the anti-Kohl camp is CDU General Secretary Angela Merkel, who has emerged as one of those strengthened by the crisis. But as an east German she is unpopular with many in the western party establishment.

Those who admire her early break with Helmut Kohl and her lead in efforts to clean up the party are balanced by those who believe she fuelled the fire by abandoning the former leader prematurely.

There is some doubt about whether the more conservative sectors of Germany are ready to contemplate a female candidate for chancellor. However, some senior figures in the CDU's arch-conservative sister party in Bavaria have backed her.

Reuhe: Too close to Kohl?
At the other end of the spectrum is Mr Kohl's former defence minister Volker Ruehe who remains a contender despite having been in office when the so-called "Kohl system" was at work.

He sustained a poll defeat in elections in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein on 27 February but avoided the drubbing many feared as a result of the financial scandal.

Mr Ruehe said the vote had put him "back in national politics", but opinion remained divided over whether he was overstating his case.

One newcomer is the media-friendly Christian Wulff. An early Kohl critic, at 40 he is young, telegenic, attractive and a member of the so-called "young wild ones" from the modernising wing of the Christian Democrats.

Wulff: Young Turk
But as party chief in Lower Saxony his highest office to date is as opposition leader in the state. And his chance may have come too soon.

He has also suffered an amount of over-exposure in the media. But he was voted one of the "top 100 leaders of tomorrow" by the World Economic forum in Davos and he remains a man to watch.

The party's elder statesman, Kurt Biedenkopf, is currently prime minister of Saxony. He is popular in east and west and is not tainted by Helmut Kohl's political machine.

But at 69 he is seen as too old to be anything other than a caretaker leader. He has praised Mr Ruehe's role in avoiding a meltdown at the Schleswig-Holstein poll.

Roland Koch: May not even last in Hesse
Someone who could be described as a "former future leader" is the young prime minister of Hesse, Roland Koch, but his chances have been destroyed in the secret funds affair and many people expect him to lose his position in the scandal-hit state soon.

Juergen Ruettgers, the boss of the North Rhine Westfalia party, has been mooted but he has been damaged by his friendship with the former Chancellor and rumours of a plot to install him as party leader in place of Wolfgang Schaeuble.

Trouble ahead

But if the party is unable to agree on the way forward and is eventually split asunder, the stability of the entire post war German system is under threat. If the CDU divides, the twin party system itself would fall apart.

That could guarantee, at best, prolong Social Democrat rule. At worst it could bring a return of the instability of the Weimar Republic of the pre-war years.

Without a credible right-of-centre party to bind in fringe elements of right-wing opinion, the extremists could fill the void.

Fears of a so-called "Haiderisation" of the German right have not materialised so far, perhaps because of the absence of a charismatic figure in the mould of the Austrian far right leader.

Meanwhile, in the east the former Communist PDS have put the Social Democrats under pressure and beaten them into third place in some states.

If the meltdown in confidence in the political system infects the Governing Social Democrats too, and there is evidence that it could, Germany is heading for a turbulent period of politics.

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