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The Dark Winter of Helmut Kohl : His Star Tarnished, Germany's Hero of Reunification Faces A Wall of Problems

January 02, 1994|Tyler Marshall | Tyler Marshall is The Times' Berlin Bureau chief.

THE LITTLE EAST GERMAN FARMING VILLAGE OF TRANTOW HAS BEEN SCRUBBED FROM ONE END to the other for its big day. Mayor Uta Kruger, who was shifting hay in the nearby fields when the advance team descended on her a week ago, now stands nervously in her Sunday best outside the village inn, listening for the sounds of the helicopter. Up the hill at the agricultural station, tough-speaking farmhands, high-heeled television reporters and blue-suited bureaucrats tiptoe through the cattle droppings, positioning themselves.

Suddenly, he's here, the chancellor, Helmut Kohl, his 6-foot-4, 287-pound frame towering over Mayor Kruger, his formidable presence keeping the crowd around him at bay as a farm director machine-guns him with statistics and other details about the station. Kohl is pleased. The good citizens of Trantow are his kind of people--rural, hard-working, doggedly determined. Buoyed by the success of their station's transition from communist collective to free-enterprise producer, they still believe that a united Germany will bring the good life. Of the 550 souls who live in and around the village, about 50 are without work, but Kohl has come to accentuate the positive. He lunches with farmers, listening more than talking, then walks through the village toward the open wheat field where his helicopter waits.

This is CDU country, territory where Kohl's conservative Christian Democratic Union holds sway despite the region's crippling unemployment, its shattered industry and its bleak outlook. Here in the remote rolling hills of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the poorest of Germany's 16 states, the euphoria of German unity may have faded, but hostility has not yet set in. He meets brave smiles and polite applause. We all knew it would take longer to reach the rainbow, they say. It's not his fault.

"Sure it's tough for some, but not everything can happen overnight," says Kruger with a shrug after the visit. "People have to keep their nerve and somehow make their way through it."

Trantow is one of three stops on the day's journey to the east, a region that received Kohl as a demigod in 1990, the year of reunification--the man who delivered them from communism, gave them the mighty deutsche mark, negotiated nearly half a million Russian soldiers out of their land, rejoined them with the West and, above all, promised them the Western-style prosperity they had for years seen only on television screens.

"No one will be worse off; for many, life will be better," he had promised. But with one of three working-age east Germans out of a job, Kohl's words now haunt him, and a sullen sense of betrayal festers in many parts of the east.

The chancellor, celebrated at home and abroad three years ago as "King Kohl," the father of German reunification and Europe's new great statesman, the man Harvard Magazine introducedin the summer of 1990 as "A New Hercules," has tumbled from grace at a speed hardly thought possible.

Opinion polls today put Kohl and his party at near-record lows. With elections looming in October for the federal Parliament, and hence for the chancellorship, the burly leader finds himself back where he was before the wall fell: in a fight for political survival. Even within the ranks of his own Christian Democrats, whispers of frustration grow more intense.

His insistence in nominating an obscure eastern politician, Steffen Heitmann, as his party's candidate for next May's presidential election, followed by Heitmann's political self-destruction and eventual withdrawal in November, amounted to a serious personal setback for Kohl and raised questions about his judgment. And local elections last month in the eastern state of Brandenburg that left his Christian Democrats struggling to keep even with the political resurgence of former Communists was a further embarrassment for the chancellor.

Kohl, as he begins his 12th year in power, may be doing poorly in the polls, but the main-opposition Social Democrats aren't doing much better. Racked by their own internal divisions and led by Rudolf Scharping, an inexperienced national chairman, the Socialists face an uphill struggle if they are to be considered a credible alternative to the Christian Democratic Union.

So at the start of the biggest election year in the country's post-World War II era, all four German mainstream parties face the ominous threat of the growing strength of the far left and extreme right. Collectively, these parties add up to about 30% of the voters, a figure that could conceivably leave Kohl and his Social Democrat opponents with two unpleasant options after the parliamentary elections: joining together in a so-called "grand coalition," or seeking an alliance with a party from the political fringe.

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