Germany in Disarray

May 05, 1992

For years he has been "King Kohl" to journalists who have marveled at German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's political acumen, staying power and just plain luck. But Mr. Kohl will hardly be a "merry old soul" when he flies to New York today, leaving behind a nation plagued by massive strikes, vicious feuding in the governing coalition, anger at foreign immigrants and disappointment over the costs and dislocations of reunification.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In coasting to victory as the "chancellor of unification" 18 months ago, Mr. Kohl promised no new taxes (sound familiar?) to pay for the melding of western and eastern Germany. The emphasis was on Germany as the irresistible and triumphant leader of Europe.

But in a lot shorter time than it took President Bush to renege on taxes, Mr. Kohl slapped a 7.5 percent surcharge on west German earners and increased their sales tax. Thus began a painful adjustment to reality that has culminated during the past week in Bonn's version of a political crisis.

With Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher resigning, his Free Democratic Party is fighting over the choice of a successor amid talk it may abandon the coalition. The Baviaria-based Christian Social Union, the other junior partner in the the coalition led by Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, is in near open rebellion. The opposition Social Democratic Party now controls every western German state government except CSU-led Bavaria. No wonder rumor mills are alive with speculation that Mr Kohl might call a snap election, shake up his riddled cabinet or seek a new coalition alignment.

If this proves the case, it would not be in character. Mr Kohl's whole career has been one of bulldog tenacity and ruthless dexterity -- a combination that has repeatedly confounded those who repeatedly underestimate him.

Nonetheless, what is happening is serious, not least to a Bush administration that has consistently cultivated Germany as its "partner in leadership." Mr. Kohl has been viewed as a key ally in maintaining a meaningful U.S. role in Europe, in providing the billions needed by old Soviet bloc countries and in bringing the EC into a new global trading agreement.

His troubles suggest that all these U.S. objectives are at risk. Strikes, top-level squabbling, deficits caused by the money drain to the east, dislike of foreigners and the consequent rise of bigoted far-right parties are the stuff that could turn Germans inward, thus abandoning for some time the leadership their neighbors both want and dread.

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