Germany's Kohl faces uphill election battle

September 07, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

BERLIN -- Little more than three weeks before Election Day, posters on telephone poles in cities across Germany proclaim the impending arrival of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, seeking by frenetic personal campaigning to extend his 16-year rule through public re-endorsement of his Christian Democratic Party.

Although Mr. Kohl by now has attained the status of a national institution and is widely acknowledged as the chief architect of the reunification of the former East and West Germanys, the sea of troubles produced by that achievement now casts him as an underdog.

The lead in most polls is held by challenger Gerhard Schroeder, head of the rival Social Democratic Party, has been narrowing. But Mr. Kohl apparently still has a way to go to overcome widespread public hostility, built on dissatisfaction with the results and cost of reunification, high unemployment in the east and a general feeling that he has been in power too long.

The rush of Germans from the old East Germany and the burden on West German taxpayers to assist in their relocation, have generated major tensions among many of the reunified countrymen. So has the tax burden of $700 billion invested by the Bonn government (slated to move to Berlin next year) to revitalize the economy in the east, bled white by 40 years of communist rule.

The much more prosperous Westerners often exhibit a sense of superiority over their less affluent countrymen from the east that is much resented. Although the former East Germany has made considerable strides economically in the last nine years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the difference to visiting eyes between West and East remains glaring.

Mr. Kohl's early promise of a "blooming landscape" in the east within three to five years after reunification has not been realized to the point that many Easterners allow themselves doubts about whether they are better off. The security of the communist-style welfare state conditioned many in the East to settling mentally for it.

Reunification also has led in Eastern minds to an exploitation mentality by Westerners going East to live or to work. Some easterners who have occupied houses through the communist era have encountered former residents who fled west now returning to claim their old property.

Mr. Kohl also has been plagued by increasing concern among Germans generally toward immigrant groups who strain the welfare rolls and trigger violence among the country's small but ever-menacing neo-Nazis. Mr. Kohl has been widely criticized for being soft on resident foreigners, mainly Turks and Gypsies, and on the skinhead punks who menace some big city streets.

To all this, the plunge of the Russian economy has caused yet another headache for Mr. Kohl, whose government has led the way among the Western European countries in granting loans to Moscow. And his chances of remaining in power are also complicated by whether his coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats, can muster the 5 percent of the vote required for representation in the Bundestag. If not, Mr. Kohl has indicated he might team up with the environmentalist Green Party.

Menacing that prospect is a challenge from the old communists in the east, under the banner of the Democratic Socialist Party, to pick up parliament seats and coalesce with Mr. Schroeder's Social Democrats to form a ruling bloc.

All this paints a pessimistic picture for Mr. Kohl, but German observers point out that voters here are generally cautious. They may decide that living conditions are good enough not to risk change after 16 years of the larger-than-life figure who has come to represent Germany in the new Europe and around the world. An upset by Mr. Kohl reminiscent of Harry Truman's 1948 barnstorming re-election in the United States is not being ruled out.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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