Germany's King Kohl

October 20, 1994

Fear not for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl even though his majority in the Bundestag has dwindled from 134 votes to only ten after last Sunday's election. Although his opponents have been quick to predict the demise of his weakened coalition, Mr. Kohl insists he can govern and is no doubt determined to become the longest-serving chancellor of the century by holding office four more years.

How to explain Mr. Kohl's confidence? For one thing, he is the survivor nonpareil of German politics, the fellow his rivals have constantly underestimated to their later chagrin. For another, he is now a free spirit serving his last term. For still another, if he falls the opposition Social Democratic Party would have the task of putting together a coalition probably more shaky than his -- either that, or agreeing to a "grand coalition" in which Helmut Kohl would remain as chancellor.

Far more important than the intricate arithmetic of Bonn politics is what Mr. Kohl can and should do with his new mandate. Germany is recovering from a painful recession that reflected the economic costs of reunification. It is plagued by a suffocating public sector. Its work week is short, its vacations and fringe benefits lavish, its competitiveness and productivity at risk. What it needs is a reduction of a welfare state that goes back to Bismarck and a good dose of free market reform.

Therein, however, lies Mr. Kohl's dilemma. His coalition partners, the business-oriented Free Democrats, would approve such moves but they are such a spent force in German politics that to cater to their wishes might be disastrous. As master of the balancing act, Mr. Kohl has to worry much more about keeping his Christian Democrats in line in the Bundestag while promoting legislation sufficiently welfare-oriented to be acceptable to the Social Democrats, who hold a two-thirds blocking majority in the upper-house Bundesrat.

On paper, it would seem Mr. Kohl either has to contemplate gridlock or preside over a de facto grand coalition that would cloud prospects for meaningful economic changes. Lurking in the background is the Bundesbank, which, like the U.S. Federal Reserve, is threatening the government with higher interest rates if it does not cut spending and reduce its deficit.

Such an agenda would daunt any politician. Or any politician except Mr. Kohl. He is the backbone of a uniting Europe, a statesman who has outlasted such contemporaries as Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher and (soon) Francois Mitterrand. Can he survive another four years? Don't bet against him.

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