Germany to the Polls

October 16, 1994

Despite Chancellor Helmut Kohl's popularity, despite reunification, recovery and Russian soldiers finally going back home, the outcome of Germany's national elections today is shrouded by the peculiarities of German political arithmetic.

If voters could cast their ballots directly for the chancellorship, the 64-year-old Kohl would win hands down. He stands for Gemutlichkeit and Germany, united and powerful in the center of Europe. But the German political system, for good historical reasons, is set up to prevent the centralization of authority. Hence, the complications.

Each voter today will cast two votes -- one for a member of the Bundestag, or parliament, from his district and one for the party of his choice. (In American terms, a citizen could cast one vote for a Democrat and a second vote for the Republican Party, or vice versa.)

Half the members of the Bundestag are elected by the votes of their constituents. That is the first vote. The other half are chosen from party lists on a percentage basis. That is the second vote. Then the new Bundestag choses a chancellor.

The trick for Mr. Kohl in today's election is to win as many first-vote members of the Bundestag as possible while subtly urging just enough of his followers to give their second votes to the ailing Free Democratic Party, his junior partner in the present coalition in Bonn. His hope is that the FDP will win the requisite 5 percent of the party-list vote to gain seats in the Bundestag. In most past elections, the FDP could clear the hurdle on its own. But after six straight state elections losses below 5 percent, political observers are not so sure. Hence, Mr. Kohl sends his oblique appeal for "the politics of good sense, the politics of coalition."

Why his worry? Because if the FDP fails, the rival Social Democratic Party (SPD) under the leadership of chancellor-candidate Rudolph Scharping could ally itself with the environmentalist Green party and set up a "Red-Green" government even if the CDU has the largest bloc of seats in the Bundestag. Or, less threatening to Mr. Kohl, there could be a "grand coalition" joining the CDU (with him as chancellor) and the SPD.

Another wild card is the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), organized by East German Communists, which could get into the Bundestag by winning just three constituency seats, probably in Berlin. An FDP loss and a PDS win could set off a scramble that would send German politics into a new era. Many verities would be on the scrap-heap and the United States would have to reassess how to deal with a major ally.

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