Political Jockeying in Germany

May 30, 1994

The year was 1969. The site was Berlin. The circumstance was the election of a new German president, a largely ceremonial post. The stakes were nothing less than control of the Bonn government after election of a new parliament -- and a chancellor -- later in the year.

On that occasion, the Cold War was much in evidence as Soviet and East German officials harassed the arrival of delegates to the election assembly from all over Germany. But the ceremony went ahead. And when it was over the election of the first Social Democratic Party president since the Weimar Era in the 'Twenties proved to be a harbinger for the triumph of that party's leader, Willy Brandt, in late summer.

The key to Chancellor Brandt's victory was the liberal Free Democratic Party, which switched allegiance from the conservative Christian Democratic Union to the Social Democrats. It was to reverse course in 1982, putting in office the current chancellor, Helmut Kohl, but that is another story.

What happened last week in Berlin was another presidential election, this one in which the Free Democrats, reluctant and divided as ever, stuck with the Christian Democrats rather than risk political oblivion. Chosen president was Chief Judge Roman Herzog of the Supreme Court, Mr. Kohl's choice but hardly a favorite in the country.

The question now in German political circles is whether, as in 1969, the Free Democrats will prove again to be the decisive element in German politics. Only this time, as Mr. Herzog's victory indicated, the FDP has determined to keep leaning right to support Mr. Kohl rather than swing left to align itself with his SPD challenger, Rudolf Scharping. Latest public opinion polls indicate that Chancellor Kohl, though still behind, is gaining as the economy improves.

Whatever the outcome, Germany is about to be denied the leadership of its most popular politician. Not Mr. Kohl. Not Mr. Scharping. Not the FDP's Klaus Kinkel. Rather, the nation will lose the services of Richard von Weizsaecker, who in his 10 years (the limit) as president has come to embody the conscience of a country that still feels "abnormal," a nation haunted by its Nazi past. President von Weizsaecker has constantly warned against neo-Nazi eruptions and against intolerance toward foreigners. His successor, despite a bumbling beginning, must do nothing less.

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