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NEWS ANALYSIS : Kohl's Real Challenge Comes After Election Win : Germany: With slight 10-seat advantage in Parliament, he faces an uphill battle against a toughened opposition.


BONN — Chancellor Helmut Kohl's winning coalition government was on the defensive Monday as political commentators pondered how long it could survive with weak allies and a toughened opposition.

ARD public television drew a black eye on a picture of the smiling Kohl, whose stubborn optimism put him first across the finish line in Sunday's federal election to claim a skimpy majority of 48.4% of the popular vote to 48.1% for the combined opposition.

That was a big loss from 54.8% of the vote in 1990--reunified Germany's first federal election--and gives the government a bare 10-seat advantage in a newly expanded 672-seat Parliament.

Ten seats do not leave the government much leeway--not much room for its members of Parliament to opt out of a vote or even miss a day of work, let alone defect from the coalition.

At the very least, such a slim majority in a coalition government means Kohl will have a tough time implementing his political agenda--to complete the process of German reunification and the forging of a European Union, to "modernize" the German economy and to trim the social welfare state.

At worst, his coalition eventually unravels at its tender seams.

"This majority will have to be defended for four years from one parliamentary vote to the next," said ARD commentator Nikolaus Brender.

The 64-year-old Kohl waves off naysayers, vowing to finish out a fourth four-year term that would make him Germany's longest-reigning leader since 19th-Century Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

"A majority is a majority," Kohl said Monday, quoting former Chancellor Willy Brandt, a Social Democrat who governed with a 12-seat advantage in Parliament. Kohl said his predecessor, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, had a 10-seat majority like his own, "and it still took us (six years) to take over the government."

Kohl's political enemies are not wasting any time. The Social Democrats prepared to take advantage of tensions already evident in the chancellor's three-party coalition and predicted Kohl would fall before the end of his term.

As the Bundesbank on Monday urged Kohl to carry out promised cuts in federal budget deficits, defeated Social Democratic leader Rudolf Scharping vowed to be an opposition watchdog on jobs, social welfare and the ecology. His party was strengthened in Parliament's lower house, or Bundestag, and most likely increased its majority in the upper house, or Bundesrat.

Leaders of the leftist Greens Party, which made its way back into Parliament with 7.3% of the vote, said they hope the opposition can force Kohl into new elections in two years.

Kohl faces challenges within his own Christian Democratic Union and his coalition, as well. The CDU, together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, remains the largest political bloc in the country, but their coalition partner, the liberal Free Democratic Party, saw its vote plummet to 6.9% from 11% in 1990.

The liberal party, which has shared power with most post-war governments, also has lost seats in the last nine state legislative elections, including three on Sunday.

On Monday, Christian Democratic leaders complained that the liberal party had survived only by usurping the votes of their supporters, who wanted to save the small party--and the coalition--from extinction.

The more conservative CSU, meanwhile, said it had grown stronger than the liberals in the election and should have a greater voice in policy-making. CSU leaders said the Free Democrats should give up at least one of their five Cabinet posts--possibly the Justice Ministry--and give ground on law-and-order issues. They have blocked a government measure to allow the bugging of private telephones for criminal investigations.

Free Democrat leaders, however, made it clear that they plan to flex their weakened muscles even more now that Kohl needs their every vote in Parliament. They acknowledge that they can rebuild themselves and forge a new identity only if they are seen as independent of the Christian Democrats.

The Free Democrats' ace is the possibility that they could abandon the coalition to support a Social Democratic government. The two parties formed a government in 1969, making Brandt chancellor.

The party denies any interest in joining the Social Democrats again, although FDP floor leader Hermann Otto Solms noted that "now we have an alternative." The Social Democrats, Greens and liberals would have enough votes in the new Parliament to form a government if they should choose to do so.

The new Parliament is to meet before Nov. 15 with an inaugural speech by its eldest member, in this case Stefan Heym, an eastern German writer who won as part of the reformed Communist Party of Democratic Socialism.

The PDS won 30 seats in the new Parliament and promises to "engage in debate" with the traditional parties led by westerners. They are likely to vote with the Social Democrats on major social and economic issues, even though the Social Democrats insist they would never form a federal government with the former Communists.

The PDS vote in the East, like the increased vote for Social Democrats across the country, is seen by the German press as a sign that many voters are tired of Kohl's 12-year government and of the recession that has hit Germany in recent years. Kohl's slim victory, they say, is not so much a confirmation of a job well done as nervousness about change.

Before Sunday's vote, Kohl announced that he would not run for a fifth term in 1998, feeding speculation about his successor and intensifying the jockeying between centrists and conservatives in the party. After the vote, a politically weakened Kohl can no longer expect to name his own replacement.

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