King Kohl's Crown Awry

April 23, 1991

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's stunning defeat in a home-state election sends a powerful trans-Atlantic signal to politicians who make extravagant promises of no new taxes. Like President Bush before him, Mr. Kohl had to renege. And like Mr. Bush, his popularity and credibility plummeted in the wake of his reversal. The president was able to bounce back with the gulf war; no such trampoline is in place for the German leader.

Only five months ago, Mr. Kohl was the triumphant "unification chancellor," the man who forced the pace to unite the two Germanys with assurances that taxes would not be increased and "no one will be worse off." After his December election to another five-year term, the situation soured. Unemployment soared in east German states. Investors stayed away, fearful of obsolescence and environmental problems. Migration, east to west, continued high -- perhaps 10,000 a day.

With the cost of unification skyrocketing, the Kohl government did a turnabout reminiscent of the Bush administration's performance during the Washington budget debate last October. Mr. Bush, it will be recalled, finally admitted the need for added revenues only to see his poll ratings drop from the mid-70s in July to the low-50s in late October. The Christian Democratic chancellor, for his part, slapped a five percent surcharge on corporation and income taxes to finance east German recovery and gulf war assessments. Social Democrats screamed about his "tax lie."

Such was the context in which the state of Rhineland-Palatinate rebuked its native son in Sunday's election. For the first time since the founding of the federal republic in 1949, the state's voters elected a Social Democratic government. This, in turn, gave Mr. Kohl's political foes a majority in the national Bundesrat, which can veto or block measures passed by the Christian Democratic majority in the Bundestag.

A 7 percent swing -- large by German standards -- had Christian Democrats talking about "disaster" and "catastrophe." Mr. Kohl will have more difficulty trying to change the constitution to permit German forces to join in United Nations peacekeeping operations, this in response to complaints of German passivity during the gulf conflict. He will have to rely on bipartisan commissions to map economic policy in eastern Germany, where conditions are going to get a lot worse before they get better. And he may have to accept reforms in the way federal money is apportioned so that poorer states will be helped.

What Germany does not need at this critical juncture is paralysis in Bonn. Mr. Kohl has come back from defeat before; he may do so again so long as he abstains from promises that require voters to read his lips while they reach for their wallets.

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