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New Defense Minister Takes Over

July 20, 2002

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BERLIN (AP) _ Germany’s new defense minister began work Friday after his predecessor was fired over allegations of financial impropriety, but the switch failed to dispel gloom about Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s re-election chances.

``The government’s disintegration has become frighteningly visible now that its eighth minister has gone,″ Germany’s most-read daily, Bild, said in an editorial the day after Schroeder abruptly dismissed defense chief Rudolf Scharping.

``A serious Cabinet crisis 66 days before the election was really the last thing the chancellor needed,″ Bild added.

Scharping’s removal followed a magazine report that he accepted $72,000 in royalties from a public relations adviser, and added to a list of woes in a lackluster government election campaign.

Commentators widely viewed the dismissal as a desperate act by Schroeder that will likely backfire for the Sept. 22 parliamentary elections. Recent polls showed slight gains for Schroeder’s governing Social Democrats, locked in a tough battle with the conservative opposition.

``This process has been abruptly halted, because firing Scharping strengthens the impression that we are being led by a government that has sunk into its final agony,″ the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily said, adding it seems ``ever more likely″ that Schroeder will be voted out.

Schroeder and Scharping stiffly shook hands Friday at a brief ceremony handing over the defense post to Peter Struck, the Social Democrats’ leader in parliament.

Schroeder remains personally popular. But his campaign was mired deeply in dismal economic data _ stubbornly high unemployment and sluggish growth _ even before this week’s events.

Scharping conceded that he took the money from public relations adviser Moritz Hunzinger for his future memoirs and for speeches. But he insisted he properly reported it.

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