Ballots for smaller parties will decide if Kohl retains German chancellorship

October 16, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Cox News ServiceBerlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- Chancellor Helmut Kohl was due any moment, and his fans in the large arena last Monday night could hardly wait. The band stopped playing, the lights dimmed, and chatter dropped to a murmur. But still no Mr. Kohl.

Then a ragged voice cried out from the rafters: "Wo ist der Dicke?" Translation: "Where's Fatso?"

German voters will answer that question today, deciding Mr. Kohl's future whereabouts with their choices in national parliamentary elections. Mr. Kohl, the hulking presence of European politics by almost any standard -- influence, longevity and, yes, size -- is rated a slight favorite to retain the chancellery, according to recent opinion polls, despite the irreverence he sometimes inspires.

His chances would be better if today's election were only a choice between his ruling Christian Democratic Union and the opposition Social Democrats, led by Rudolph Scharping.

But German ballots are lengthy menus of parties and legislators, from which each voter can choose only one party and one district representative. The decisive factor for Mr. Kohl is likely to be a series of intriguing subplots involving smaller parties of East German communists, West German business people and leftist environmentalists.

This indirect and sometimes splintered method of choosing a head of state hasn't kept Mr. Kohl from being the centerpiece of the campaign, however. Although Germans are known for their earnest devotion to the fine print of issues, Mr. Kohl's strategists have focused most attention on the chancellor's blunt personality and plain-spoken style.

Not that Mr. Kohl is wildly popular. Not long ago people were aiming eggs at him during appearances in eastern Germany, where voters are still smarting from high unemployment brought on by reunification. West Germans still grumble about Mr. Kohl's promise to speedily make the eastern landscape bloom with prosperity. Instead all they've seen blooming is their tax bills.

The discontent of Berliners is evidenced on the frequent defacements of Mr. Kohl's huge campaign posters, which have become canvases for artistic cranks. Political vandals have painted dripping eggs and devil's horns onto Mr. Kohl's head and superimposed massive naked bodies onto his business suit. On a poster showing Mr. Kohl surrounded by an admiring crowd, one observer daubed a bright blue circle to highlight a barely visible man who, to this artist, appears to be raising his right arm in a Nazi salute.

For all that, after 12 years in power it has become hard for some Germans to imagine any other sort of person as chancellor, and his personality seems even more powerful when pitted against that of the bland, bookish Mr. Scharping.

The issues debate, such as it is, has focused from the beginning on the economy. Six months ago that seemed smart for Mr. Scharping. The recession was dragging on and the country's biggest employers were squeezing concessions from labor unions. Now even the opposition admits the economy is getting better, and Mr. Kohl's party leads this debate. But there is still enough bad fortune in the states of the former East Germany to influence the totals of the smaller parties, and this is where Mr. Kohl's governing coalition may win or lose.

His party's coalition partners, the Free Democrats, face the possibility of extinction. Known as a party of midsized businesses, the FDP has picked up so little support in the eastern states that it may not get the 5 percent share of the national vote necessary to win back its allotment of seats in the Bundestag.

Then there are the Greens, the one-time renegades who have picked up support by aging into respectability. The aging process was speeded by a dose of reality in 1990, when the party failed to break 5 percent. The Greens would back Mr. Scharping for chancellor.

The remaining wild card is the Party of Democratic Socialism, the reformed communist party of East Germany. Although not expected to break 5 percent, the PDS could gain a percentage share of legislative seats through the alternative route -- by winning three district contests outright. Their win, coupled with the erasure of the Free Democrats, could leave them holding the balance of power in determining the next ruling coalition. If that happens, they've said they'd vote for Mr. Scharping.

Mr. Scharping, in turn, has said he'd refuse to be elected by PDS support. That would leave almost no other choice except the forced marriage of a "grand coalition" by the two biggest parties.

The U.S. State Department will hardly be a disinterested observer. Four more years of Mr. Kohl would seem to promise four more years of smooth relations with a Germany determined to reassert itself, peacefully, in the reshaping of Europe.

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