The `Chancellor Of Unity' Is Up Against A New Wall

If Bundestag elections were held now, Chancellor Helmut Kohl would be tossed out after 11 years in power. Some polls show his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) trailing the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) badly, and much of the German press has already written him off.

But the 63-year-old Kohl, a skilled political infighter, is far from beaten. In a feisty 90-minute speech at the CDU's party congress in Hamburg on Feb. 21, the usually stolid Chancellor noticeably energized the worried party regulars on hand. "We have to fight whether we've got the wind in our sails or, as now, we are sailing into a head wind," he roared.

FINISHING KICK. His performance was strong enough to stifle any incipient "dump Kohl" movements in his party. But changing voters' minds won't be as easy. The German economy is a mess. More than 4 million German workers--10.4% of the work force--are unemployed. Germany has slipped into a double-dip recession, while tax hikes and welfare cuts are in the offing.

Voters seem to have forgotten Kohl's pivotal role in bringing about German unity in 1990, focusing instead on economic issues. The independent FORSA polling institute says Kohl's CDU currently scores with 31% of voters vs. 44% for the SPD.

Key Bundestag elections don't take place until Oct. 16, however. So Kohl has time to wind up with his trademark finishing kick. Still, the finale will come after a bruising series of 19 state, municipal, national, and European elections that could badly damage the CDU.

Kohl succeeded before, say the FORSA pollsters, by swaying millions of undecided voters in a final spurt. There are a lot of fence-sitters to convince this time: More than 27% of voters are still undecided--the majority of them center-right supporters. This is encouraging for Kohl because the SPD is thought to have already corralled most of its voters.

In Hamburg, Kohl kicked off the campaign by blasting the SPD as an isolationist party. He also took the somewhat risky tack of defining unemployment and Germany's international competitiveness as key domestic issues.

SPD leader Rudolf Scharping, currently Prime Minister of Kohl's home state of Rhineland-Palatinate, figures he can win with the same pocketbook issues. But Scharping is being hurt by the behavior of his trade-union allies. The country's largest union, IG Metall, has aggravated the German public by threatening to strike to enforce its demands for a 6% pay hike and a shorter workweek, without any wage reduction.

Scharping has also hurt his own cause by pushing a plan for a 10% income-tax surcharge that makes Kohl's unpopular planned 7.5% add-on for 1995 look small by comparison. Scharping's measure would boost top personal-tax rates to over 58% from the present 53%. The SPD, in fact, should beware the example of Britain's Labor Party, which lost a big lead in last year's elections because of fear of higher taxes.

Still, Kohl has a dangerous obstacle course to negotiate before the big elections. In the Mar. 13 Lower Saxony state election, 17 parties are fielding candidates, creating the potential for all sorts of mishaps for the big parties. Kohl's lowest ebb will probably be at the June 12 European Parliament elections--usually a huge protest vote against incumbents--at which far-right parties such as the xenophobic Republikaners are likely to make their strongest showing.

If the CDU's performance is abysmal in these warm-ups, there is a risk that Kohl will be too severely hurt to recover. And just as British voters summarily dumped Churchill in 1945 despite his leadership in World War II, Germans might send the "Chancellor of Unity" into early retirement.

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