German state elections solidify Kohl's postion

March 28, 1996|By ELIZABETH POND

BONN -- The Liberals survived yet again. The German electorate reasserted its love of stability after a few years of protest votes.

And Chancellor Helmut Kohl can probably rule longer than the legendary Otto von Bismarck if he wishes.

These are the conclusions to be drawn from the only German state elections this year, all held last Sunday.

Mr. Kohl's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) made unusual midterm gains of its own of up to 3 percent, while still donating enough proportional second votes to its junior partner for the Liberal party also to gain and enter all three state parliaments.

This reverses the dismal trend of a dozen elections in which the Liberals failed to reach the 5 percent minimum to get into state legislatures at all. It suggests that the party is not yet dead and will once more squeak through in the 1998 general election to give the CDU a coalition majority.

The dazed Social Democrats, who have been out of power at the federal level for 15 years but control a majority of statehouses, lost between 4 and 6 percent of votes.

For their part, right-wing radicals did worse than in 1992, dropping out of parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and falling almost 2 percent, down to a still high 9 percent in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

All this is good news for Mr. Kohl, the colossus astride both Germany and Europe. He originally planned to exceed West German founding father Konrad Adenauer's tenure this fall, many commentators thought, then resign in favor of his semi-heir apparent, Bundestag majority leader Wolfgang Schauble.

In the current favorable winds he might well sail on, however, to surpass Bismarck's record of a century ago.

There are abundant paradoxes here. Despite a pervasive sense of crisis over structural unemployment of more than 4 million, voters rewarded the federal government that usually gets punished in midterm elections.

Despite many warnings that the famous German consensus no longer holds, the electorate opted for the consensus establishment -- and rejected the Social Democrats' populist themes of opposing, sotto voce, the European monetary union, and the immigration of more ethnic Germans from former Communist states.

Brinkmanship

This rosy picture for Chancellor Kohl is enough to make his staff resort to counter-intuitive warnings. "We stand on the brink," warned one Kohl adviser. We could go back to the political apathy of 1992 and the conjunction of problems that no one seems able to control any longer, he said.

This sobriety is just the obverse of the chancellor's sunny optimism when the last midterm elections four years ago showed him at the bottom of opinion polls in the midst of general malaise.

At that point the extreme right was in the upswing, and President Richard von Weizsacker was decrying what only the Germans could call Politikverdrossenheit -- popular disillusionment with politics. Mr. Kohl went on to confound all forecasts and win re-election in 1994.

Somehow, it seems, Mr. Kohl embodies the mood of the nation in a way no other politician does. One TV analyst suggested that despite (or because of) their economic worries, people voted for competence and still attribute economic competence more to the right than to the left.

A more structural explanation is that the environmental Green Party grew to become the third-largest party in the past two decades only by stealing votes from the Social Democrats. Their joint total still falls short of a left majority, unless they can get the swing-party Liberals to defect to their side.

Yet the tiny Liberals, who for almost four decades have tipped the scale for center-right or center-left federal governments, lost their own left wing after abandoning the Social Democrats for Mr. Kohl in 1982. A leftist option for them no longer seems feasible.

Mutual advantages

The Liberals are, therefore, utterly dependent on Mr. Kohl -- but are also useful to him in strengthening, by contrast, the conservatives' centrist image.

The Liberals' classic advocacy of less government and less social welfare makes Mr. Kohl's conservatives look more compassionate than the Liberals at a time of record unemployment. The Liberal call for lower business taxes sounds like special pleading and makes the Christian Democrats' similar (but more moderate) demands look statesmanlike.

The Liberals' defense of individual rights against intrusive wiretapping -- or expulsion of alien Kurds who firebomb Turkish businesses -- highlights conservative defense of middle-class law-and-order.

So will Chancellor Kohl react to his latest victory by resigning in glory at the CDU convention next October, or by aiming to surpass Bismarck's record, too? That's the $100,000 question.

Whether or not he does so may depend on the success of the European Union's Intergovernmental Conference in Italy this week. Mr. Kohl's first major goal was achieved with unification of Germany five years ago.

If his second goal of closer European union is achieved as well, he could conceivably decide that his lifework was fulfilled, give Mr. Schauble the benefit of incumbency for the 1998 election and retire to accolades all around.

If the European conference dithers and produces little, however, the kingpin of Europe could very well decide that he alone possesses the power to carry on the vision of Europe and remain in office into the 21st century.

Either way, the Iron Chancellor would be impressed.

Elizabeth Pond is co-author of "The German Question and Other German Questions," to be published next month by St. Martins.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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