Bonn — A week ago Helmut Kohl was leader of an opposition that had been out of power for 13 years. This week he is the West German chancellor apparent.
That makes all the difference. Everything that was a matter for attic party theorists way back at the beginning of September has suddenly become a matter for front-office strategists today.
The biggest question - which conservative politician would become chancellor with the breakup of the veteran left-Liberal coalition - was never in doubt. But everything else is.
Most urgently, the everything else has included the date for a new election, the toppling of now-caretaker Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt - and, of course, the degree of power to be allotted to Bavarian strong man Franz Josef Strauss.
On the issue of an early general election (the next scheduled one would have come in 1984), Dr. Kohl seems to have won out over his formidable Bavarian rival.
After four hours of negotiations among Kohl (chairman of the main 174-seat conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU), Strauss (chairman of the CDU's sister Bavarian party, the 52-seat Christian Social Union, or CSU), and ex- and future Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (chairman of the 53 -seat Free Democratic Party, the Liberals), the new coalition has agreed to call an election next March.
This happened despite the CSU insistence that a new election be called immediately - or else the CSU wouldn't join the conservative parliamentary vote to oust Chancellor Schmidt.
The formal CSU reasoning ran like this: Any government change (like the current one) that comes through a simple coalition shift must be legitimized by a popular mandate as soon as possible. And what better time to hold an election than when opinion polls show an unprecedented absolute conservative majority?
The behind-the-scenes CSU reasoning, according to conservative sources, was rather different. The real intent was to force the Liberals out of existence. Those opinion polls also show that if an election were held right away, the FDP would fall below the 5 percent minimum for entry into Parliament. If that occurred, the Liberals' disappearance would clear the way for a much weightier role for Strauss, both in inner conservative councils and as probable foreign minister.
Just the obverse motivation governed Chancellor-designate Kohl's successful support of the Liberals in postponing a new election for four months. His intent was precisely to give the Liberals time to heal their internal rift and low public esteem after their abandonment of Chancellor Schmidt and the 13-year-old left-Liberal coalition. The moderate Kohl's further intent was precisely to preserve the Liberal's counterbalance to the more right-wing Strauss, a much more forceful personality than Kohl and a frequent spoiler of other conservative rival-allies in the past.
The second issue, involving the exact staging of Chancellor Schmidt's coup de grace, was linked to the first. The Liberals, with the cunning of a party that knows that its very survival is at stake, threatened to withhold their critical vote on the constructive nonconfidence resolution in the Bundestag (and simply leave Schmidt in office) if Strauss refused to yield on the new election date. Now that the Bavarians have given in, however, the date for parliamentary transition has been set for Oct. 1.
The third question - which party gets which plums in the Cabinet - may also be related to the election-date question, though any trade-offs have not yet been leaked to the public.
Here the CSU, which regards itself as the virtuous son who stayed home while the prodigal Liberals wasted their time in riotous Social Democrat living, is demanding equal representation with the Liberals. That is, if the Liberals get to keep the four major portfolios they had under Schmidt - the Foreign, Economics, Interior, and Agriculture Ministries - the CSU will insist on four, too, and that will leave only seven for Kohl's CDU. Preliminary skirmishing suggests that the Liberals (and thus the CSU), will be reduced to three, however , leaving nine for the CDU.