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In West German Elections, Fringe Can Tip the Balance

January 18, 1987|Erich Vogt | Erich Vogt writes on East-West affairs for the German weekly Die Zeit and for the International Herald Tribune

BONN — Chancellor Helmut Kohl has every reason to be happy these days. On the eve of the oddest non-campaign in this nation's election history, the German electorate seems cautiously optimistic about the future.

No sizzling confrontation about what is still an unacceptedly high unemployment rate (8.7%), no fiery rhetoric about making the state pension system less generous and no more than a meek rebuke from a few Social Democrats and Green Party members for the government's passing submarine blueprints to South Africa's apartheid regime.

Nothing seems to get Germans too excited these days. They seem more interested in getting on with life than in challenging it. Such is the state of affairs in the federal republic just a week before the general election next Sunday, and barring any further blunders from the man at the helm--like Kohl's recent equating of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev with Nazi Josef Goebbels--the conservative Christian Democrats will take the country into the 1990s. Kohl knows it, and he shows it; Johannes Rau, his Social Democratic opponent, knows it; and the republic's unpredictable godfather of the Bavarian-right Christian Social Union, Franz Josef Strauss, knows it, too.

What will happen at the fringes of Germany's political spectrum is far more difficult to predict. Will Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher's liberal Free Democrats once again muster the 5% of the vote needed to win seats in the Bundestadt--the same 5% margin Chancellor Kohl may need to put him over the top? Or will the Greens, Europe's strongest ecology party, who won their first parliamentary seats four years ago, stack up enough votes to make a Social Democrat-Greens coalition possible?

The specter of a such a coalition looms large in the chancellor's mind, and it is enough to keep Kohl on his feet, fighting the spreading lethargy among his supporters. A relentless party politician, Kohl can be seen in the Bundestadt and in the smoke-filled meeting halls of his party's election officers working his way through potential supporters. Here he is at his best--congenial, effective and shrewd. But on the outside he has been less effective, dragging President Reagan to the Bitburg cemetery in 1985, against the advice of friends and foes alike, and more recently linking Gorbachev to Goebbels by comparing their public-relations skills. (Kohl subsequently said the remark about Goebbels, which appeared in a Newsweek interview, was a misquote: "I disassociate myself from it," he told a German newspaper.)

Rau, Kohl's challenger for the chancellorship, is the popular premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Last summer he led his party to a stunning victory there, where almost a third of the West German electorate live. Buoyed by his similar triumphs in the Saar, Rau's party colleagues urged him to challenge Kohl for the chancellorship. Rau first hesitated, then agreed to go for it.

As a centrist, Rau speaks quite easily and convincingly of "our American friends." But he is not as obliging to the Reagan Administration's whims and wants as Kohl is. At home he has advocated a step-by-step shutdown of all atomic power stations, and he castigates Kohl consistently for failing to give the country the liberal economic shake-up that he promised.

Initial polls gave Rau a 10% lead over Kohl, and widespread infighting among the conservative Christian Democrats appeared to leave a faltering Kohl without the necessary troops to stage a successful comeback. But Rau's hopes of sweeping the election with a clear majority suffered a near fatal blow in the fall when, first in Bavaria and then in Hamburg, the Social Democrats met their worst defeats since World War II.

Regardless of how the Social Democrats do on election day, the Greens will continue to be the alternative force in Germany's parliamentary system. But they too have begun to feel the gravity-like pull of German politics. Today it is not positions on NATO or abortion that cause tempers to fly. The most divisive issue before the Green fundamentalists ("Fundis") and the party's pragmatically oriented "Realos" today is whether or not the Greens should become a potential coalition partner.

Petra Kelley, the American-educated co-founder of the Greens, wants the party to assume governmental and ministerial responsibilities, citing the success of the Social Democrat-Green coalition in the state of Hesse. But Kelley's influence is waning, and she barely managed to secure a prominent spot on the election ballot.

It remains to be seen whether it is Kelley or the Fundis who read the signs of the time correctly. The typical Green voter is no longer the young man or woman pursuing alternative life styles; now yuppies, disgruntled pensioners, members of the farming community and large numbers of churchgoers also belong. The Greens have surely benefited from public response to the Chernobyl disaster and the pesticide pollution of the Rhine.

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