West Germany tries to wash away political contribution scandal

Bonn's party financing scandal just won't go away. The center-right government hoped to get rid of the issue by passing an amnesty this month for up to 1,800 tax evaders who had contributed to political coffers in the past.

But a revolt within the junior coalition partner, the Liberal party, blocked this, and the legislative draft was withdrawn Wednesday.

Ironically, the Liberal party stood to gain the most from the amnesty. The most prominent politician being investigated for suspected illegal finagling of funds is Liberal Economics Minister Otto Lambsdorff. And the small and poor Free Democratic (liberal) Party has depended more than any other party on the donations of industries that favor the Liberals' precept of almost no government interference in business.

The scandal does brush the other coalition partners. As many as a dozen and a half Christian Democratic and Christian Social Union as well as Liberal MPs could be involved in the alleged laundering of political donations to make the money tax exempt for the donors. The larger and wealthier conservative Union parties have membership and other substantial sources of funds, however, and have not led so precarious a financial existence as the Liberals - or been so dependent on questionable contributions from industry.

By contrast, the only prominent Social Democratic politician who is suspected of shady financial dealings is now deceased. In any case the Social Democrats get the bulk of their funds from undisguised trade union money.

The remaining opposition party, the Greens, is lily pure. Contemptuous of business and bourgeoisie, the Greens are so debt free they use part of their state campaign subsidies to fund small counter-cultural companies and other projects.

The cause of the revolt by Liberal backbenchers in a series of intramural meetings Wednesday was conscience. The party has always promoted two principles: a free-market economy and rule of law, including robust civil rights.

The Liberal right wing stresses the first principle - to the point of standing to the right of many conservatives. The Liberal left wing stresses the second - so much so that many members quit the party in 1982 when it sublimated civil rights issues in shifting from coalition with the Social Democrats to coalition with the conservatives.

The government draft legislation amnestying political contributors thus offended the remaining civil rights enthusiasts in the Liberal party, and a grass-roots revolt took place. Party leader Hans-Dietrich Genscher, foreign minister for 10 years, therefore had to inform Chancellor Kohl that he could not deliver his party for the draft amnesty bill - and that the government probably could not get a majority for the bill in the Bundstag.

The opposition parties are having a field day with the government's disarray and what is clearly the best issue to come their way since their defeat in the election 14 months ago.

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