Is Europe likely to get an untested leader? German election: Hard times bring dissatisfaction, possibility of shift to the left.

September 23, 1998

EUROLAND, POISED to unify the currencies of 11 countries under one central bank on New Year's Day, expects seasoned government from the dominant member. If the polls before the Sept. 27 election are to be believed, Germany may not provide it.

No politician in Europe has the solid accomplishments of Germany's four-term, 16-year Christian Democratic chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who unified Germany when much of Europe was opposed and pushed through the euro when many doubted it could be done.

For this, his compatriots may chuck the conservative Mr. Kohl and pick inexperienced leadership from the left. But Mr. Kohl has come back from the brink of defeat before and has momentum now. The polls that show his Christian Democrats and their Free Democratic partners trailing the Social Democrats and their left-wing partners, the Greens, also show the gap narrowing.

Germans are unhappy: Over 10 percent of workers are unemployed, some 17 percent in former East Germany. No one would undo reunification, which Mr. Kohl engineeredwhen communism was collapsing in the East, but few Germans are happy with the way it worked out. East Germans think they are colonized, second-class citizens. West Germans think they pay too much to support East Germans.

Gerhard Schroeder, who would replace Mr. Kohl, is governor of Lower Saxony, with no experience in national issues or foreign affairs but a charismatic reputation as a womanizer. His role in politics has been to yank the left-leaning Social Democratic Party to the center, in the manner of Bill Clinton and the Democrats.

He expects to join the center-left trend in Europe that produced Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in France. His party is divided over the new centrism, however, leading to disharmony helpful to the Christian Democrats.

Germany's chancellor is more important than ever, thanks to Mr. Kohl. His nation dominates Europe geographically after unification, and will dominate it economically with the euro. Mr. Schroeder would not be an outsider's choice to take on this fearsome responsibility. Neither would Mr. Kohl have been 16 years ago.

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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