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The End of the Kohl Era Has Begun

October 23, 1994|Henry A. Kissinger | Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger frequently writes for The Times

NEW YORK — Chancellor Helmut Kohl's coalition has prevailed by the narrowest margin in Parliament since the first German national election after the war. This outcome will not by itself diminish his authority, since the Kohl coalition's real margin is greater than it appears. No current leader would accept becoming chancellor with the help of 30 former Communist Party members, who entered Parliament through a heretofore inoperative constitutional clause.

But this is precisely why the election is likely to be viewed in retrospect as an augury of impending upheaval in the German political landscape--as the beginning of the end of the era of Kohl. At a minimum, Kohl's coalition partner, the liberal Free Democratic Party, will become increasingly fractious. It may even abandon the coalition altogether and switch sides by midterm.

The Free Democrats are having an identity crisis. They know they came close to failing to get the 5% of the total vote necessary to qualify for representation in Parliament. They may well have crossed that hurdle only because Kohl's party encouraged the switch of enough of its own votes to sustain the coalition.

The Free Democrats seem to have reached the point that former Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher described to me in 1980, when his party had been allied with the Social Democrats for more than 10 years. He said his party would have to look for an opportunity to switch during the next electoral period because, if its voters became too accustomed to a permanent coalition with Social Democrats, they would lose interest in a separate existence and vote for Social Democrats directly.

A similar situation seems to have arisen today, though the current Free Democratic leader lacks the manipulative skill of his predecessor and would have to take into account the risk of a complete disintegration of his party if he tried to change coalitions. But self-interest will drive the Free Democrats toward greater assertiveness and, at an opportune moment, tempt them to switch coalitions.

If the Free Democrats join the Socialists and the Greens, the resulting coalition would be in a position to elect a new chancellor. Kohl's fourth term would be unprecedentedly precarious, and his government would require far greater effort than previously to pass its legislative program. In addition, his own party may be tempted into succession maneuvers.

Kohl had hinted strongly that, if elected, he might not serve more than two years and would hand over the remainder of his term to a successor of his own choosing. But after the recent election, such a move could trigger a shift in coalitions by giving the Free Democrats a pretext to reject the Christian Democratic Union's choice. On the other hand, if Kohl serves out the course, he will have an exhausting term as a prelude to fighting another bitter election battle with--this time--uncertain allies constantly reviewing whether they are more likely to reach 5% as the right wing of a Socialist-led coalition or as the left wing of a Christian Democratic one.

These are melancholy prospects, because Kohl is one of the seminal figures of our period. He has been a guarantee of Germany's Atlantic and European orientation and a shield against nationalistic or romantic temptations, from which his people have suffered through much of their modern history. This does not reflect a lack of confidence in Social Democrats, who proved their sense of responsibility under chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. Since then, however, the party's radical wing has grown far more restless; its coalition party would be the Greens, whose formal program rejects the Atlantic Alliance and a major international role for Germany. The center of gravity of such a coalition would be much farther left and would make implementation of traditional Atlantic policy much more difficult.

The approaching end of the Kohl era is due not only to electoral arithmetic but to the transition in generations. Kohl is the last West German leader with a living memory of World War II and its aftermath. The next generation, of all the parties, will be less tied to traditional interpretations, more cool-headed about assessing national interests and more inclined to assert a national German role. This will be reinforced by the growing influence of the formerly communist part of Germany, whose people did not experience the great period of Atlantic cooperation and European construction and who saw in nationalism a refuge from communist oppression.

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