Rudolf Scharping

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Rudolf Scharping

A member of the postwar generation of German political leaders, Rudolf Scharping (born 1947) was minister-president of Rhineland-Palatinate and chairman of the German Social Democratic Party and its chancellor candidate for 1994.

Born on December 2, 1947, Rudolf Scharping grew up in the small city of Lahnstein in Rhineland-Palatinate. He was the eldest of seven children whose father, an independent furniture dealer, ran into difficult economic times after World War II. When the father found a position in the state's statistical office, the family's situation improved.

After finishing secondary education in 1966, Scharping studied political science, law, and sociology at the University of Bonn. He financed part of his studies through work, including an assistantship to a German Social Democratic Party (SPD) deputy, Wilhelm Dröscher, the party's treasurer, who became his mentor. He received an advanced degree in 1974 after completing a thesis on a regional election campaign waged by the SPD in 1969. Married in 1971, he and his wife had three daughters.

Scharping had joined the party in 1966 and swiftly rose in its ranks. Soon he was selected as state chairman, and from 1974 to 1976 he served as national deputy chairman of the Young Socialists. He became a friend of Oskar Lafontaine, an SPD leader who later became minister-president of the Saarland and chancellor candidate in the 1990 election.

In 1975, after having served on city and district councils, the 28-year-old Scharping was elected a member of the Rhineland-Palatinate legislature. In 1986 he headed its SPD parliamentary group. In the party, the ambitious politician soon became executive secretary of the SPD's state branch and, beginning in 1985, its chairman. His diligence, honesty, reliability, politeness, and unassuming and provincial manners stood him well. In successive public opinion pollshe did better in popularity ratings than the state's minister-president, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The national SPD leader, Willy Brandt, considered Scharping as one of the most reliable young party leaders, who were colorfully labeled Brandt's "grandchildren." Brandt, before his death in 1992, advised his associates not to forget Scharping as a potential party chairman.

For some years Scharping had been consolidating his power in the state SPD. In the 1987 election he was the party's candidate for the minister-president post, but the CDU won. However, two years later the SPD became the strongest party in local and European Parliament elections held in Rhineland-Palatinate, partly because the party gained the support of middle-class voters whom Scharping had wooed.

In April 1991 the SPD mustered an unprecedented plurality of votes (nearly 45 percent) in the state election, ousting the CDU-led state government, which had been in power for 44 years. The SPD victory, much of it credited to Scharping, was partly due to his denunciation of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's failure to accurately predict the high outlays for assisting the economic recovery of eastern Germany after the 1990 unification. He convinced many voters in Rhineland-Palatinate, worried about higher taxes, to switch their votes from the CDU to the SPD.

Scharping became minister-president after forming a coalition government with the small, liberal Free Democratic Party. He also had held negotiations with the environmentalist Green Party, but differences on policies between them, Scharping reasoned, precluded a coalition that could govern effectively. He was pragmatically oriented and was wary of the ideological stance of the Greens.

As minister-president Scharping had to face serious economic problems in his state. He developed an expertise in economic affairs and worked closely with industrial and business leaders to encourage more private investments and to lighten the tax burden for small-and medium-sized businesses. He also sought to increase the efficiency of the state administration.

In 1990 Scharping became a member of the national executive committee of the SPD, but two years later he was unable, in a highly competitive contest, to win a seat on the party's presidium, the top policymaking organ. Nevertheless Scharping gained further national recognition when he pushed for an intraparty compromise on the political asylum issue that had pitted those who wanted Germany to provide unrestricted asylum to the politically persecuted against those who favored restrictions. As a result, the SPD was able to come to an agreement in 1993 with the other parties on changes in asylum policy. Similarly, Scharping, as a member of the Bundesrat, the upper house of Parliament, helped to arrange a compromise on unresolved questions concerning a solidarity pact to assist eastern Germany.

Scharping gained more public recognition, but he did not expect to become the SPD's national chairman. In the early 1990s the party's Old Guard decided that younger leaders needed to assume the post. In 1991 they chose Björn Engholm, minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein. However, in early 1993 Engholm unexpectedly resigned the chairmanship and his political posts as a result of an earlier scandal in his state. In an unprecedented move designed to expand grassroots democracy within the party, all SPD members were polled as to their choice of Engholm's successor as chairman. The 45-year-old Scharping won a plurality against two other contenders, a choice that a special convention in June 1993 sustained.

Scharping's selection also meant that he became the party's candidate for the post of chancellor in the October 1994 national election against CDU/CSU candidate Chancellor Kohl. Early pre-election polls had shown the SPD as likely to emerge from the federal elections as the largest party. but by September, intra-party conflicts and an attendant power struggle had lowered SPD popularity to its lowest point in 36 years. In an attempt at unity three weeks before the elections, the party agreed upon a collective leadership solution, a triumvirate shadow cabinet consisting of Scharping as chairman, Oskar Lafontaine as finance spokesman, and Scharping's chief rival, Gerhard Schroder, as economic spokesman. The CDU/CSU emerged as the winner in the elections but saw its governing coalition reduced to a thin 10-seat majority, leaving Kohl seek consensus with the opposition on important decisions.

Scharping was elected a member of the lower house of the Bundestag in the 1994 Federal elections as a member of the regional list for Rhineland-Palatinate and became deputy chairman of the federal SPD Bundestag. He became chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Europe in 1995.

Further Reading

There was no full biography of Scharping in English. Ulrich Rosenbaum's Rudolf Scharping: Biographie was published in Germany in 1993. For a study of the SPD and its leaders, including Scharping, see Gerard Braunthal, The German Social Democrats Since 1969: A Party in Power and Opposition (1994). See also Elizabeth Pond, "Rudolf Scharping: Is he Germany's Bill Clinton?" Europe (European Economic Community) (July-August 1994); and Joe Klein, "What's German for "Ross Perot," Newsweek (January 31, 1994). □