Germany's left turns left Lafontaine for the SPD: Chancellor Kohl of the CDU, a U.S. ally, remains in firm control.

November 19, 1995

GERMANY'S HAPLESS PARTY of the left, the once-proud SPD of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, has turned left once again in its frustrating battle against the CDU's perennially triumphant Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After losing in 1990, the SPD dumped Oskar Lafontaine, the fiery populist who dared to poor-mouth reunification of East and West Germany, and turned to a relative centrist, the bland and boring Rudolf Scharping. But Mr. Scharping also proved a loser in last year's elections. So what was the directionless party to do?

The answer came at a meeting in Mannheim. While Mr. Lafontaine held his tongue, Mr. Scharping jousted with other party critics, gave a predictably lackluster speech, watched Mr. Lafontaine deliver a stemwinder and then watched stunned as his rival toppled him from the leadership of the Social Democratic Party.

This might put some fire back in the SPD belly. It might rouse nostalgic memories of old struggles for social justice. But whether the left can recover from two decades in the political wilderness by changing one one-time loser for another is questionable. The party finds itself in need of dubious allies: the pro-environmentalist Greens who arouse fears of joblessness within the SPD's blue-collar core and the party of former East German Communists, which is roundly loathed in western Germany.

In the U.S., Mr. Kohl is regarded as a reliable ally, a leader oriented to the West, dedicated to NATO and even willing to send fighter aircraft to assist the peace effort in Bosnia. In the off-chance Mr. Lafontaine should come to power in 1998 elections, Washington would have to reassess the American role in Europe -- a role, incidentally, that is as lacking in definition as the SPD's role in Germany.

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