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Germans Face Choice Between Call for Change and Status Kohl : Election: The chancellor seeks a fourth term in voting today. His 46-year-old challenger, Rudolf Scharping, says enough is enough.


BONN — Continuity or change. The old, post-World War II generation or the new Sixties breed. Those are the options in the German federal election today, when voters must choose whether to return conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl to office for a fourth term or replace him with the younger Social Democrat, Rudolf Scharping.

Kohl, 64--who aspires to become Germany's longest serving chancellor since the war--has barnstormed the country with such optimism that he already has journalists asking if he plans to run again in 1998.

Scharping, meanwhile, seeks to be the Bill Clinton of Germany, a 46-year-old pragmatist leading his party back to power after 12 years in the back seat. Enough is enough, he says. It's time for a change.

The Kohl camp is betting that, no matter how much Germany's 60 million voters might worry and complain, ultimately they will opt for the status quo. "No German government ever has lost power in an election," said a confident senior government official. "Never has a challenger replaced an incumbent through an open election."

Most of the latest polls give a slight advantage to Kohl's three-party coalition, made up of the Christian Democratic Union; its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union; and the liberal Free Democratic Party.

But there are enough wild cards in the multi-party race that the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel has prepared five possible cover stories for its Monday edition. The weekly newspaper Die Woche still asks in a front-page headline if there will be "A Chancellor Change?"

The yearlong campaign has been an American-style competition of personalities over issues: The veteran statesman Kohl versus the bearded Scharping, who quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Kohl stands for peace and stability, Scharping for jobs and social justice.

The business community clearly prefers Kohl. And despite the prevailing issue of "change," neither candidate has spoken of making any radical changes in Germany's existing economic or foreign policies, especially its relationship with the United States.

Neither man, though, will have the votes to govern alone, and Germany's small parties ultimately will determine who rules a coalition government.

With two ballots each to elect a Parliament, Germans vote for a deputy in their district and for a political party. The chancellor is then picked in Parliament by the largest party or the party that can control the most seats in alliance with others.

For decades, the kingmakers have been the Free Democrats. They helped bring the Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt to power in 1969, and brought his party down again in 1982 when they switched sides to the Christian Democrats, putting Kohl in office.

The liberals have vowed to go with Kohl again, but they failed to win legislative seats in the last six state elections, raising questions about their viability in the federal vote. Can they scrape together the 5% minimum needed to win seats in Parliament?

Most recent polls say they can, and the government official, who asked not to be identified, insisted they would because "the liberals have always made it in the most important elections. . . . Germans are used to coalition governments."

If the liberals fail to make the cut, or if the two parties together fall short of a clear majority, Kohl could be forced into what is called a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats. This option, last tried in the 1960s, is a last resort for both sides.

"No one really wants it," said Sueddeutsche Zeitung's political reporter, Stephan Kornelius. "A grand coalition increases the extreme parties on the left and right. In the middle-term, it will harm both of the big parties."

The "extreme" vote is another uncertainty for Kohl, who ran a Cold War, anti-Communist campaign. Although the ultra-rightist Republikaner Party almost certainly will not make it into Parliament, the reformed Communist Party of East Germany, the Party of Democratic Socialism, has a shot with the leadership of its top candidate, Gregor Gysi, whom many consider to be Germany's most dynamic politician.

Polls show the PDS to have less than 5% support nationwide but strength in several eastern districts. Under a quirk in the election law, if they win three districts they could take up to 27 seats in the 656-seat Bundestag.

The Social Democrats sought to form a government with the ecological Greens Party, which is expected to win its way back into the Bundestag today after losing out in 1990. But the two parties alone are not likely to have enough votes, and a PDS victory could tip the scales in their favor.

During the campaign, Kohl hammered the Social Democrats for forming a state government in Saxony-Anhalt earlier this year with the support of the former Communists. His attacks forced Scharping to say he would not turn to the PDS to form a federal government.

But the mere idea that he would consider working with the PDS cost Scharping votes in the West.

The impact in the East has not been as clear.

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