If The Center Cannot Hold, Will Germany's Left Rise?

For decades, Germany's Free Democratic party (FDP) has played kingmaker in Bonn. As a centrist third party with a solid block of Bundestag seats, it has held the balance of power between the huge, conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the socialist Social Democratic Party (SPD). In 1982, for example, it brought the CDU's Helmut Kohl into office by ditching SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

Now, as Germany prepares to move the government to Berlin by 2000, the FDP risks being marginalized just as the old capital, Bonn, will be. The FDP's staple formula of free-market economics and an eastward-looking foreign policy no longer plays with the voters. It's considered the party of smug, well-heeled and aging Germans.

The FDP did manage to put Kohl over the top in the general elections last October, but it saw its share of the vote nearly halved, from 11% to 6.9%. That was perilously close to the 5% necessary to qualify for seats in the Bundestag.

GOOD SHOT. Many younger voters and east Germans, who are not attracted to the major parties, are turning instead to the environmentalist Greens and the reformed communist organization, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). Although some of their policies, such as wanting to leave NATO, are still impractical, the Greens have a good shot at replacing the FDP as the major third force.

The weakening of the FDP could have profound consequences for Germany. Just as the country is struggling to cut social spending and make its industry more efficient, a key voice for market reforms, privatization, and deregulation will be muted. It will become much tougher to cut spending or reduce taxes on business. Indeed, with the Greens and PDS having substantial blocs of seats, it will become easier to form left-wing coalitions, and German politics could be subject to more volatile swings without the FDP's stabilizing influence.

The FDP's decline could even force Kohl to cut short his four-year term. Political analysts worry that in an effort to revive their appeal, FDP Bundestag members may abandon the Chancellor in midterm, as they did Schmidt in 1982. With Kohl holding a slim 10-vote majority, "it only takes six desperadoes to topple the coalition," warns Bonn-based political consultant Heinz Schulte.

Politicos are closely watching a series of coming state elections. If the FDP fails to reach 5% in one or more, panic could set in. The first vote will take place on Feb. 19 in Hessen, which includes Frankfurt. "I am trying to convince my party not to get nervous," says former FDP Chairman and elder statesman Otto Lambsdorff. But he concedes: "The reaction to the results could be very damaging."

POOR SHOWING. Some analysts say that unless the FDP chalks up some convincing wins soon, it is doomed to be swept out of the next Bundestag in 1998. Chances of a turnaround don't seem good. Since 1992, the party has not won a single seat in any state legislature. It has now been booted from nine of Germany's 16 state parliaments.

The FDP's decline at the state level benefits not only the Greens but the socialists, currently led by Rudolf Scharping. Although they haven't done well in national elections in recent years, the socialists now have the biggest blocs in the majority of the state governments, which they run in coalitions with the Greens, the PDS, and even the CDU. That could augur a sooner-than-expected return of the left to national power.

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