Kohl Battles Caricature

April 24, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The cartoon in the poster at every subway stop shows a reporter perched like a flea on the end of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's long, long nose.

"We're not afraid of big animals," the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper advertisement boasts.

The caricature is nicely symbolic of Mr. Kohl's plight today. He's being pricked and prodded from all sides. Everybody's in his face, from radical right Republikaners to the World Jewish Congress.

The right is upset about the enormous influx of refugees coming to Germany. The Jews are disturbed because Mr. Kohl met recently with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who has a murky Nazi past from World War II. The chancellor told those who didn't like it to mind their own business.

Two years ago, no advertising director would have dreamed of promoting his product by twitting Mr. Kohl. The chancellor was riding the crest of public approval over his moves to unify Germany.

His place in history for that remains secure. But right now, his vision, effectiveness and ability to win the next election are suspect. He's not well-liked, to cop a phrase from an old play about a dying salesman.

"You've been in office 10 years," an interviewer said last night on Bavarian television. "Why aren't you popular?"

Mr. Kohl compressed his lips and puffed out his cheeks, as he tends to do when he doesn't like a question.

"It's enough for me to win elections," he said. "I've been doing it for 10 years. I'll do it in 1994."

Mr. Kohl was in Bavaria at a spa. He was eating only dried bread and drinking mineral water. He looked fit, if not slimmer.

"I'm not fasting to lose weight," he told the interviewer. "I'm fasting to get clarity."

Mr. Kohl is one authority figure that Germans can make fun of. They joke about his girth, his middle-class tastes, his clumsiness. He is caricatured everywhere, usually looking glum about his country's financial problems.

Germans quip that when he comes back from fasting, they all will have to tighten their belts.

Mr. Kohl doesn't like to say how much he weighs, but he looks closeto 300 pounds nowadays. His waistline seemed to expand with the ballooning costs of unification, the slumping economy in eastern Germany and the increasing public sector debt.

When he returns from the Bavarian spa, he might find the lights out. Public service workers threaten to strike unless they get a 5.4 percent wage increase. They work in electricity, transport, waste disposal and hospital services.

During his interview last night, Mr. Kohl blamed the unions for lots of the country's economic troubles. They all want far more than the 3 percent that he wants to give them.

"We've lived beyond our means," he said.

But, he said, "Neither Germany nor the chancellor is in a crisis."

Still, all kinds of polls, not to mention some recent local election returns, show that Germans are wary about their economic future.

They worry about inflation, unemployment, taxes and what many see as a threatening influx of foreigners who come into the country as refugees under Germany's liberal asylum law.

On TV, Mr. Kohl said he would change the law this year. And he said people should not mind paying for unification. Besides, the surtax Germans are paying for the cost of unification ends this year. He promises no more tax increases.

He'll continue to help the Russians and pledges to try to get other nations to do more, especially Japan. He remains an ardent champion of European unity.

"He wants to be the father of European unification, as well as German unification," says Der Spiegel, the German news weekly, a bit disdainful of the chancellor's attempts to take on the role of statesman.

"He suns himself in self-adulation," the magazine says.

And he doesn't brook much dissent in his party, the Christian Democratic Union. He has reformed the party in his image, banishing opposition, getting rid of the tough, self-confident people he and the times need.

If anything, he becomes more imperious the more his party loses elections. Earlier this month, the CDU lost in the last state in western Germany where they had a majority. The party had long ago lost power in Mr. Kohl's home province, Rhineland Palatinate.

The Social Democrats now control the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German Parliament. Mr. Kohl could hardly get a bill introduced if it weren't for four old East German states that the Christian Democratic Union controls. He gets their votes because he was the reunification chancellor. But even in eastern Germany, they're having second thoughts.

Political observers tick off problems facing Germany and, therefore, Mr. Kohl: failure to find "inner unity," rising debt, a governing coalition that can't make decisions, health care for the elderly, abortion, the refugee question.

In the face of these problems, which some critics say he seems unwilling to address, Mr. Kohl might stand a better chance of losing than he cares to consider. One thing he has going for him is the opposition Social Democratic Party. It's losing votes, too.

His potential opponent, Social Democratic leader Bjorn Engholm, continually wins popularity polls. But he still has to show that he can beat Mr. Kohl. Mr. Engholm is tall, handsome, intelligent, caring and sensitive. He smokes a pipe, drinks French wine, likes modern art.

He might be a little too cultured to be chancellor of Germany.

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