Commentary: Kohl's Shame Could Be His Party's Salvation

These are grim times for Helmut Kohl. Instead of ringing in 2000 as Germany's celebrated elder statesman, Kohl has been fending off a criminal investigation into the secret bank accounts he ran while Chancellor. Kohl says he accepted about $1 million in illegal donations between 1993 and 1998. Since that admission, the scandal has ensnared other members of Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU)--including Wolfgang Schauble, Kohl's successor as chairman.

There's a king-size irony here. The scandal is the worst thing to hit the CDU in years. But it also offers the party a chance to open itself to powerful reformers. And it certainly needs them. While the conservative CDU is business-friendly, it was also the main architect of Germany's unwieldy social infrastructure. The CDU's real free-market advocates have often been drowned out by Kohl and his proteges.

Kohl's followers include 57-year-old Schauble, a staunch member of the CDU old guard, who wants to maintain the party's hybrid of socialism and capitalism. But Schauble now faces questions about a $600,000 cash transfer from the CDU parliamentary faction to party headquarters. That occurred in 1997 when Schauble was the faction's leader. General Secretary Angela Merkel, 45, is a potential successor to Schauble, but she, too, is a Kohl disciple and a traditionalist.

NEW VISION. These traditionalists should step aside to make way for younger forces in the party who are capable of throwing out old thinking and developing a new image and vision for the CDU. If they don't, the CDU could wind up in as much trouble as Britain's Tories, who are lost in the political wilderness, squabbling among themselves as Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair pulls Britain into an era of innovation. That's the alternative if change does not take place.

Who could lead a new CDU? Already, younger faces in the party are gaining power. Peter Muller, 44, minister president in Saarland; Christian Wulff, 40, opposition leader in Lower Saxony; and Roland Koch, 41, minister president of Hesse, are prominent among the rising leaders. Among other things, they propose reforming the costly pension system and dismantling the rigid code of regulations largely responsible for Germany's anemic growth and chronic unemployment. Just such innovations are needed if the CDU wants to realize its potential and distinguish its agenda from that of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

The Young Turks--who are untainted by the Kohl affair because they stand outside his inner circle--seem to be waiting for the scandal to run its course before stepping into the resulting power vacuum. But there are already signs of impatience among them. On Jan. 4, Michael Luther, 43 and prominent in the parliamentary faction, called on Kohl to resign from the Bundestag.

LOST GROUND. While Luther was quickly slapped down by other party members, the younger generation is not without its supporters among the old guard. These include Kurt Biedenkopf, minister president of Saxony, who has publicly urged Wulff, Luther, and their colleagues to take advantage of the Kohl affair by assuming more power.

The CDU has already lost ground to the SPD's ruling coalition as a result of the Kohl affair--and it could lose more. Yes, the conservatives enjoyed a revival in state elections last year. But support for the CDU has waned since the Kohl allegations emerged in November; the SPD is now even with it in the opinion polls. While the CDU is left to answer questions about the scandal, the SPD is taking its most serious crack yet at tax reform. As recently as November, it seemed the CDU had a strong chance to grab back the Chancellor's office in the next national election in 2002. But if the investigations into party finances drag on, those chances will diminish.

Kohl remains a larger-than-life figure for Germans--as the architect of German reunification and the euro should. But it's time for the CDU to step out of his shadow. If it doesn't do so soon, what the tabloids are calling "Kohl's darkest hour" will also be the party's.

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