BERLIN -- Chancellor Helmut Kohl's governing coalition narrowly claimed another four years in power yesterday from a splintered German electorate that has recently endured huge tax increases, double-digit unemployment, a wave of neo-Nazi violence and the lingering pain of reunification.
Provisional official final results seemed to ensure that Germany will remain on track in its cautious, measured drive to assume more power in European and world affairs, a role favored by the United States although supported less enthusiastically by France and Great Britain.
The slim margin of victory "will make it more difficult to govern," Mr. Kohl admitted last night. "But such is life."
Chancellor since 1982, Mr. Kohl, 64, is now on track to surpass Konrad Adenauer's 14 years as Germany's most durable postwar head of government. But this was the toughest election yet for a politician known for comebacks and close calls, and the opposition still senses that he's vulnerable.
The coalition "will be confirmed -- barely -- but remains a coalition of losers," said Rudolf Scharping, leader of the Social Democrats, the main opposition. "If we don't take over now, we'll be in power by 1998, if not sooner."
Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) won 341 seats in the 672-seat lower house. The combined opposition of the Social Democrats (SPD), the radical Greens and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the former East German Communists, took 331 seats, according to provisional official results reported by the Reuters news service.
The Social Democrats' strong showing in three state elections will probably tighten their hold on the Bundesrat, or upper house of parliament, which has a strong voice in making laws.
"It's a very weak government," said Gerald Livingstone, an election observer who heads the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington.
"It looks like they're going to have a blocking majority, and they're going to use it, to stop the government from governing."
Earlier this year, the CDU and CSU trailed in public opinion polls by as many as 15 points, while Germany's economy continued to slog through recession.
Mr. Scharping, 46, consistently scored higher in popularity ratings, with his rallying cry of "Jobs, jobs, jobs." And as if that weren't enough, the traditional coalition partners of Mr. Kohl's party, the Free Democrats, seemed in danger of failing to win enough votes to make it back into the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. Then the economy began to pick up speed. Mr. Scharping lost ground by stumbling over complicated plans for a tax increase. And in the final months of the campaign Mr. Kohl got a boost from one of the very factors that made his coalition's winning margin so narrow.
That factor was the resurrection of the Party of Democratic Socialism. Led by the charismatic Gregor Gysi, a lawyer who had defended dissidents against the repressive East German government, the PDS capitalized on the alienation of east German voters. The PDS began winning a fifth of the vote in eastern state elections, and in the state of Saxon-Anhalt it even joined the governing coalition with the formidable Social Democrats.
When that happened, Mr. Kohl pounced on the development as an omen for Germany's future if his party was turned out of power. He warned of the rise of a new Red Menace, led not only by the Social Democrats and the PDS, but also by the Greens, a party which has advocated such measures as abolishing the German army, closing all nuclear power plants and raising gasoline taxes by $12 a gallon.
Mr. Scharping attempted to distance himself from the controversy by saying that he wouldn't take power with the help of the PDS, but he had no choice but to align his party with the Greens as the Social Democrats faded in he polls.
And for some voters, that was enough to scare them away.
"I wanted to keep the coalition in power," explained Dieter Ahnert, a lawyer from a prosperous district in west Berlin, as he emerged from the voting booth.
"I didn't want to depend on the Social Democrats or the socialists. And if the Greens got into power they'd only be taking money away from me."
Even at that, it took a rally in the final week by the Free Democrats to put Mr. Kohl's coalition back over the top.
Lothar Bisky, chairman of the PDS, seemed almost as happy as any party leader last night.
"If we had said in 1990 that we would return to the Bundestag this year, people would have laughed at us," he said. "Now we are the third-largest force in the east."