W. German vote puts Schmidt just where he wants to be . . . in firm control

"Germany remains predictable." Helmut Schmidt's comment was made within hours of his ruling coalition's Oct. 5 electoral victory -- a victory that assured continuity in the country's policies.

The chancellor was referring in particular to his policies of keeping the European military balance on as low a level as possible (i.e., new NATO nuclear weapons if arms-control talks fail); upholding detente with the East; and preserving domestic "social peace."

The coalition's convincing win has:

* Put Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt exactly where he wants to be, with a hefty 45-seat majority in parliament -- but also a powerful Liberal coalition counterweight to his own party's left wing.

* Strengthened the swing-vote Liberals to an undreamed of 10.6 percent of the vote -- and increased their influence within the government coalition.

* Faced the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- after the Conservatives' worst showing since 1949 -- with the question of whether it should move in a more liberal direction.

These are the conclusions politicians and observers are drawing from the 89 percent voter participation that gave the Social Democratic 218 Bundestag seats (up four), the Liberals 53 seats (up 14), and the combined Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union 226 seats (down 17 for the next four years.)

The roller-coaster Liberals (Free Democratic Party), after disappearing from West Germany's most populous state last May by just failing to get the minimum 5 percent vote in the North Rhine-Westphalia election, have now scored their highest nationwide vote since 1961.

They will not ask for more than the four major ministerial posts they already hold -- foreign affairs, economics, interior, and agriculture. They will, however, expect to have a greater impact on policies that are especially dear to them, including guarding business against excessive government intervention and guarding individual civil liberties against police encroachment.

Although they are firmly linked to the Social Democrats at this point, the Liberals have now also reinforced their historical role as the decisive tipper of the balance. With the exception of a very few years, neither of West Germany's two major parties has been able to form a government in postwar years without the extra votes of the Liberals. The Liberals' change of allegiance from the Conservatives to the Social Democrats in 1969 ensured a Social Democratic chancellor for the eleven years since then.

Philosophically, the Liberals can shift easily because their economic policies are conservative, while their social policies parallel the Social Democrats'. Their foreign policy, throughout West German history, has been in the mainstream -- with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (against the Social Democrats) for Western alliance in the 1950s, with Chancellor Willy Brandt (against the Conservatives) for detente with East Germany in the 1970s.

The renaissance of the Liberals and the decisive defeat of opposition chancellor candidate Franz Josef Strauss -- a man who is temperamentally from the right wing of the Conservatives even if his specific 1980 policy prescriptions differ little from Chancellor Schmidt's -- is now sparking some rethinking in the CDU.

In the post mortem that began Oct. 6 some CDU strategists are already counseling abandonment of the party's rightist emphasis that was evident in the past two years in the naming of Strauss as chancellor candidate, Strauss's Christian Social Union colleague Richard Stuecklen as Bundestag president, and CDU Karl Carstens as president of West Germany.

If the CDU does not move in a more centrist direction, these strategists argue, it could not hope to improve or even repeat the feat of its chairman and then chancellor candidate, Helmut Kohl, who came very close to defeating Schmidt in 1976. Nor could it ever hope to lure the crucial Liberals away from their partnership with the Social Democrats.

The CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, does not share the view of CDU centrists. Its own inclinations parallel those of the CDU's right wing. CSU chairman, Bavarian premier, and chancellor candidate Strauss has clearly voiced the CSU opinion in attributing his defeat only to "defamation" of him personally during the campaign.

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