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Germany

Merkel's Finance Minister Strategy Backfires

Paul Kirchhof, the finance expert that Angela Merkel tapped as possible finance minister, has become a dangerous liability that could cost the conservatives victory, observers said Monday.

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Paul Kirchhof has become a liability for Angela Merkel

When Merkel named the 62-year-old university professor and former constitutional court judge her shadow finance minister last month, she clearly believed the appointment -- Kirchhof is widely respected and regarded as a brilliant thinker by his peers -- was a coup that would cement an expected win on Sept. 18.

Instead, with less than a week to go before election day, Kirchhof's audacious proposals for a flat-rate tax of 25 percent have boomeranged on her, slashing the CDU/CSU's 21-point lead over Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democrats (SPD) in the opinion polls to a paltry seven points.

That may not be enough for Schröder to be re-elected, but it could force Merkel and the CDU/CSU into a "grand coalition" with his SPD party, a horror scenario for many, particularly the free-market liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who have set their hearts on becoming junior partner in the new conservative government.

Backpedalling fast

Paul Kirchhof, ehem. Richter am Bundesverfassungsgericht, aufgenommen am 6. Mai 2005 in Köln

Paul Kirchhof

Consequently, top FDP politicians have been quick to urge Merkel to distance herself from Kirchhof.

Germans should vote on the CDU/CSU's election program "not the visions of a scientist," said the party's tax expert Hermann Otto Solms.

And the FDP's honorary chairman, Otto Graf Lambsdorff, warned that Kirchhof's nomination was "a risk that may turn out to be bigger than its usefulness."

Even the FDP's chief whip Wolfgang Gerhardt said on ARD public television that while he respected Kirchhof, the university professor was politically inexperienced.

The SPD's strong recovery in the polls also appears to be unnerving Merkel, who insisted Sunday that the CDU/CSU's aim was simply to lower the top and bottom rates of income tax.

Die CDU-Vorsitzende und Kanzlerkandidatin Angela Merkel gestikuliert im Reichstag in Berlin waehrend der letzten Sitzung des Bundestages vor den Wahlen am Mittwoch, 7. September 2005

Angela Merkel

"Anything beyond that is pie in the sky," Merkel said, appearing to sideline Kirchhof and his radical ideas.

Nevertheless, officially at least, the shadow finance minister remains on board.

"Our team of experts is going to meet on Wednesday and professor Kirchhof will definitely be there," said CDU chief whip Volker Kauder in Berlin on Monday.

Gift for Schröder

Ironically, the nomination of Kirchhof has been a godsend for Schröder, who was trailing badly in the opinion polls as voters punished him for the deeply unpopular structural and economic reforms he has imposed during his seven years in office.

Schröder wittert Morgenluft

Kirchhof has provided Gerhard Schröder with a breath of fresh air

Ever media-canny, Schröder has tried to turn the tables on Merkel, arguing that Kirchhof's visions would make Germany an even starker and colder place, carefully ignoring the fact that the university professor's proposals are not actually contained in the official CDU/CSU manifesto.

Press voices

And with the SPD bouncing back in the polls, experts do indeed believe that Kirchhof could ultimately prove to be Merkel's undoing.

The weekly magazine Der Spiegel made the "battle over Kirchhof" its front page story on Monday.

Der FDP-Vorsitzende Guido Westerwelle, die CDU-Vorsitzende und Kanzlerkandidatin Angela Merkel und der CSU-Vorsitzende und bayerische Ministerpraesident Edmund Stoiber, von links, unterhalten sich im

FDP head Guido Westerwelle, Angela Merkel and CSU head Edmund Stoiber

The Berlin-based daily Tagesspiegel said that the election result "is still open. The reason for this development is Kirchhof. If there is no CDU/CSU-FDP majority on September 18 then Kirchhof will have had a major part to play in this state of affairs."

But not everyone was being hoodwinked by the political machinations over Kirchhof, who increasingly appears to have become an unwitting pawn in the last-minute election battle.

The daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said Schröder was purposely portraying Kirchhof to be a "mad scientist, a social demon who would like nothing more than to put his guinea pigs, the German people, into a deep freeze."

And the left-wing daily Tageszeitung satirized the SPD's efforts to portray Kirchhof as some sort of blood-sucking vampire on its front page. The headline, "Kirchhof, Symphony of Horror," was an allusion to the name of F.W. Murnau's classic 1922 film "Nosferatu, Symphonies des Grauens," below which was a still of the bald, fanged vampire from that same film.

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