Germany's 'Super-Election Year'

January 17, 1994

As Germany launches into a year of 19 local, state, national and European Union elections, Chancellor Helmut Kohl must wonder in his darker moments if he is fated to become a Margaret Thatcher or a George Bush. His Christian Democratic Union could dump him, Thatcher-fashion, after an anticipated poor showing in Lower Saxony in March. Or, much more likely, the CDU with its veteran leader at the helm could be defeated, Bush-style, in October federal elections.

How could this be so? How could the "chancellor of unification" be in such a predicament? For the same reasons the American president who triumphed in the Persian Gulf could be defeated.

In a word, recession -- a recession compounded by the unexpected burdens of trying to bring the Communist-wrecked eastern German economy up to the comforts of the capitalist West. Like Mr. Bush, Chancellor Kohl is hemmed in by huge federal deficits. He is considered indifferent to high unemployment or unable to restore competitiveness.

While Mr. Bush's problems originated with the spend-and-borrow policies of Ronald Reagan, Mr. Kohl can't point fingers. He had promised the eastern Germans their economy would "blossom," an unfulfilled forecast that has made him an anathema to the "Ossis" he freed from Communism. And in trying to make good on this pledge, he has spent $80 billion a year in an unprecedented transfer of wealth from West to East that has stirred up vast resentments among the "Wessis."

Only Mr. Kohl's record of bouncing back from political pitfalls gives heart to his supporters. (The chancellor has said he makes his living by being underestimated.) For the most part, CDU politicians are preparing for the worst -- not knowing precisely what is the worst. Is it to play junior partner to the loathed Social Democrats in a "grand coalition" of the two major parties? Or is it to be thrust into opposition while the SPD finds common cause with the environmentalist Green party?

What complicates the situation is entry of five and even six parties into the ring. Until now, Germans would habitually give most of their votes to the CDU and the SPD while reserving just enough swing votes so the centrist Free Democratic Party could act as a stabilizing fulcrum. But the FDP may be doomed. While the Greens have more or less joined the Establishment, the extreme rightwing Republikaner Party (in the West) and the neo-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (in the East) are exploiting every grievance. It is not a happy time for a country that remembers how chaotic Weimar-era politics gave way to Nazi dictatorship.

For Germany's allies, there is at least some assurance in the emergence of a new SPD candidate for chancellor, Rudolph Scharping, who is decidedly centrist in a party too often tilted left. Either he or Mr. Kohl, in some kind of combination or opposition, will be leading Germany at a moment when all of Europe is in flux. After all the votes are counted, they need to make a success of it.

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