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Germany's New Politics: It's OK to Be Different

February 22, 1987|Erich Vogt | Erich Vogt writes about German affairs for Die Welt and other publications.

BONN — West Germany's general election last month settled the question of who will sit next to Chancellor Helmut Kohl as foreign minister in the next Bundestag--Franz Josef Strauss, the unpredictable godfather of the Bavarian-right Christian Social Union or the liberal Free Democrat Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Incumbent Genscher stays put.

What the election has not settled, however, is the course West Germany's body politic will steer. For the first time in the federal republic's political history, the two major parties, Kohl's conservative Christian Democrats and Willy Brandt's liberal Social Democrats, have lost considerable voter support. The outcome of the election jolted the political Establishment because the voters have handed the two dominant forces in postwar German politics a defeat that goes deeper than mere numbers indicate.

An analysis of election returns suggests that the country's party system is undergoing fundamental changes, and that the political spectrum in West Germany is growing more colorful, more pluralistic--and less stable. And interestingly enough, there is no talk of another Weimar, the pre-Hitler republic with scores of parties and ever-changing power alignments. Quite the contrary, citizens seem quite comfortable with the new centrifugal movement in German politics.

While in postwar Germany the process of gaining power has always involved splinter groups returning to the fold, the center now no longer exerts the same kind of gravity-like pull on politics. It is quite OK now to be at the fringes of the political spectrum, OK to be different.

While that's not unusual in other industrial democracies, in the case of West Germany it is. Friends and foes alike ask where the country is heading.

Unfortunately, thoughtful answers are not forthcoming, since political parties are too busy now jockeying for power and position. But when the newly formed government takes over, Kohl no doubt will sell his countrymen the same vague optimism that failed to make much of an impact on the electorate in January. While advisers tell Kohl that more of the same will eventually erode his standing in the party, no one is strong enough to push him out of the pilot's seat. However, a poor showing in a number of upcoming state elections this year may do just that.

Kohl is, for the moment, still strong enough to hold his party together, despite fights over the continuation and content of Ostpolitik-- relations with East Germany and the Soviet Bloc--and a new era of detente. Former Chancellor (1969-74) Brandt, on the other hand, is rapidly losing control of his herd of Social Democrats. The party has clearly ceased to be a serious contender for the chancellorship for some time to come, having lost its grip on blue-collar workers and on the big cities and industrial centers--while making no headway with the young. The Social Democrats, with the elections behind them, must now decide if they want to go it alone or if their future will shine brighter if they form a coalition with the Greens, the environmental party that increased its share of the vote last month, to 8.3% from 5.6% in 1983.

The obvious beneficiaries of this country's changing political winds have been the liberal Free Democrats of Foreign Minister Genscher as well as the Greens and a number of right-wing splinter parties. But it was the Greens who cut deepest into the political center.

Although deeply divided between the fundamentalist "Fundis" and the pragmatically oriented "Realos," the Greens have rung a responsive chord with West German voters. But their success is also something of a mixed blessing. Where do they go from here? Should they stick to a non-conformist opposition course and not assume ministerial responsibility under any circumstances, as the "Fundis" argue? Or should they become coalition partners and wield executive power wherever possible, as the "Realos" urge?

The debate shows that the Greens are coming of age sooner than they wanted to. The time has passed when they could afford to sit back and let the functionaries of other parties dig their own traps. Environmental awareness is fast becoming a middle-class norm, one that cuts across all party lines. The Greens are finding they can attract the yuppie vote, which has been going to the conservative Christian Democrats, and the support of farmers and churchgoers.

West German politics is clearly becoming more complicated--and more polarizing--as the center loses its grip. But the country's politics may hence also reflect more closely the will of the people, less so the whims of party professionals--a big change for a relatively small adjustment of the popular will.

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