HAMBURG, Germany, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- The conservative challengers in Germany's election have opened the sensitive new theme of immigration, in what their opponents say is a sign of desperation as incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder moves into the lead.
Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber, under pressure to re-invigorate his faltering campaign, has agreed to shift his hitherto centrist campaign, and rally right-wing supporters by claiming that more immigration is "irresponsible" in a country with more than 4 million unemployed.
Stoiber's move to the right provoked derision from Schroeder, who told a big election rally in Berlin Sunday night, "Every time the center-right gets into difficulties they raise the immigration issue. Don't let them get away with it."
Stoiber was pushed into the new stance by his predecessor as leader of the conservative coalition, Angela Merkel, who comes from the former East Germany where unemployment is double the level in the old West Germany, and where immigration is a hot issue.
Merkel insisted Monday that immigration "is not a far-right issue, it's a social issue in a country with so much unemployment."
Merkel was backed by other party leaders, worried by the erosion over the past month of their 8-point lead in the polls and the failure of their unemployment-based campaign to catch fire with the voters. Most polls show the conservatives and Social Democrats running neck-and-neck, but the headlines have been caught by polls showing Schroeder edging into a 2-point lead.
Schroeder, campaigning for the first time with his coalition partner, foreign minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens, looked like a winner Sunday night, beaming and clasping his hands over his head like a boxing champion. But he warned that turning immigration into an election issue "would be an act of desperation and would call into question the domestic calm we have preserved."
But Gunther Beckstein, expected to be Germany's new minister of the Interior if the conservatives win Sunday's election, will pledge to repeal the new immigration law, party officials said. A new conservative government would also review whether immigrants should be entitled to full benefits from Germany's generous welfare system.
"The law is completely wrong," Beckstein said Sunday. "It makes immigration possible without regard to the needs of the labor market and without requiring would-be immigrants to have job offers."
The decision to raise immigration in the campaign's last week carries a high political risk, despite the showing made elsewhere in Europe by anti-immigration campaigns. But France's Jean-Marie Le Pen won 28 percent of the vote, and Jorg Haider's anti-immigrant party in Austria won 27 percent of the vote, and both unleashed a wave of outrage across Europe and served to rally their opponents at home.
Across the Baltic Sea from Germany, Sweden's incumbent Social democrat premier Goran Persson won re-election Sunday despite the strong campaign on limiting immigration made by his conservative opponents. Although weighty, the immigration issue is a delicate one in Europe and can rebound on those who use it.
But German conservatives seem convinced that they need to do something dramatic to reverse the momentum that now boost Schroeder's Red-Green coalition. The conservatives also hope to bring in a parallel theme, the enlargement of the European Union in Eastern Europe, which some Germans fear will lead to more low-wage competition as Polish, Czech and other low-cost workers get the right to seek work in Germany.
Polling experts said Sunday that the campaign's final week was looking bleak for the conservatives, with erosion of support among their older voters, apparently troubled -- without any evidence -- that their pensions might be reduced. Stoiber was also running into resistance among undecided voters outside his native Bavaria, although his dry and controlled presence could hardly be less of the beer-loving, thigh-slapping Bavarian of stereotype.