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Scharping studied politics, sociology and law at the University of Bonn. He joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1966. He was Member of the Rhineland-Palatine Diet from 1975 to 1994. From 21 May 1991 to 15 October 1994 he was prime minister of the state. In 1994 he ran for chancellor against Helmut Kohl (CDU), lost, and became leader of the opposition. His successor for the prime minister post was Kurt Beck .
From 1993 to 1995, Scharping was chairman of the SPD, succeeding Björn Engholm. He was then defeated by Oskar Lafontaine in an election at the federal party convent at Mannheim. He was elected as one of five assistant chairmen in the same year and re-elected in 1997, 1999 and 2001. He has been member of the Bundestag since 1994. He led the SPD parliamentary group from 1994 to 1998.
From 27 October 1998 to 18 July 2002 he was Germany's Minister of Defense. In his period of office, the German Bundeswehr participated for the first time in a military operation outside Germany (in Macedonia).
At this time, Scharping justified the attacks with the existence of an Operation Horseshoe, which was the alleged plan of the Serbian government to systematically evict all Albanians from Kosovo. The existence of this plan was disputed soon after its revelation. Today it is widely believed that this was false information from the Bulgarian secret service. It is argumentative whether the German government knew of the questionable value of this information.
Scharping was unseated shortly before the Bundestag elections in 2002, due to several political affairs. In the so-called Mallorca Affair he had his picture taken in the swimming pool in company of his girlfriend Kristina Countess Pilati while the Bundeswehr was about to begin a difficult mission in Macedonia. The Moritz Hunzinger Affair was also related to him. Scharping is the first German Federal Minister to be dismissed against his own will.
Following his dismissal as Minister of Defense, he withdrew his candidacy for reelection as vice chairman as his chances were meagre. His successor was once again Kurt Beck. Despite demands from the party he has not yet abandoned his Bundestag seat.
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