First, Margaret Thatcher. Now, Helmut Kohl?

Just five months ago, after winning reelection on Dec. 2, Helmut Kohl was riding high among his countrymen as the "Chancellor of German unity." Kohl's Germany, in President George Bush's glowing assessment, was the leader of post-cold-war Europe and thus a key partner of the U. S. Now, after eight years in power, Kohl is suddenly fighting for his political survival. His weakening grip threatens to cripple his capacity to govern Germany, let alone provide dynamic leadership in the European Community and NATO. "We have to get through a bad patch," Kohl concedes.

What triggered Kohl's skid was the Apr. 21 defeat of his Christian Democratic Union in Rhineland-Palatinate--the party's fifth straight loss in state elections. The election also gave the victorious Social Democratic Party control of Bonn's upper house of parliament, with veto power over tax and constitutional legislation. Now, Christian Democrats' alarm over the party's grass-roots erosion is fueling "dump Kohl" sentiment, while the Christian Social Union, the party's powerful Bavarian affiliate, is threatening to quit the Bonn coalition.

POWER PLAY. These reversals are ruining what should have been Kohl's hour of glory as Europe's strongest leader at a time when governments in France, Britain, and Italy are in disarray. But instead of anchoring European efforts to reassert world influence, Kohl now may be unable to fulfill commitments such as amending Germany's constitution to enable its army to join with allies in operations outside Europe. And instead of taking the lead in shaping a new Europe, by throwing Germany's weight behind EC drives for monetary and political union, Kohl is struggling to keep control of his own party.

His fate will be resolved in top-level party meetings in coming weeks, starting with a May 7 session between Christian Democratic and Christian Social leaders, followed by a June 7-8 conclave of Christian Democratic brass. The party's Bundestag members chose Kohl as their leader, and they can dump him--just as Britain's Conservatives replaced Margaret Thatcher as party leader and Prime Minister last fall. Or Kohl could be toppled by his coalition partners, the liberal Free Democratic Party, which forced former Socialist Chancellor Helmut Schmidt from office in October, 1982, by quitting his coalition and switching allegiance to Kohl.

Indeed, much of the current strain in Kohl's Cabinet stems from coalition conflicts. Kohl recently nixed an attempt by Economics Minister Jurgen Mollemann, a Free Democrat, to wrest control of the privatization agency for east Germany from Finance Minister Theo Waigel, a Christian Social Bavarian. But Kohl has been unable to defuse complaints from the strongly pro-NATO Bavarians. They gripe that Free Democrats led by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, an advocate of "pan-European" policies, have too much sway over foreign policy.

Underlying the political malaise, however, is unification's staggering cost, which is likely to run around $60 billion annually for years. Although Kohl promised not to hike taxes to pay for unification, he is putting a 7.5% surcharge on income and corporate taxes. The result, says Heiner Geissler, a former Christian Democratic party secretary and potential contender for Kohl's job, is a "deep credibility crisis."

Kohl survived previous revolts by the party's upper echelons by leading the party to victory in state and local elections, thus helping hundreds of Christian Democrats win elective office. Now, after the string of state election defeats, they want a political rainmaker. If Kohl fails to convince them in the next few weeks that he still has the touch, the Chancellor could end up sitting beside Maggie Thatcher--on the outside looking in.

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