Coalition strains arrive early this year in West Germany. At stake in squabble is nature of German conservatism

Usually the quarrels in West Germany's center-right government coalition bubble up during the ``summer hole,'' when little is going on politically. And the right wing of Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss's Christian Social Union (CSU) is pitted against the Liberals. This year, however, the squabbles sprouted in spring. And this time they involve not only the CSU versus the Liberals, but also fighting within the conservative ``Union'' of the Bavarian CSU and its big sister Christian DemocraticUnion (CDU). The coalition is not (yet) at stake, but the heart and soul of German conservatism is.

After a slight pause over the Easter recess - over the weekend the Liberals only sniped half-heartedly at the CSU's pro-South African policy - the protagonists resumed battle. CSU deputy General Secretary Erwin Huber struck back at the Liberals' ``irresponsible'' idea of imposing economic sanctions on South Africa.

CDU Presidium member and Labor Minister Norbert Bl"um will visit South Africa shortly with a strong anti-apartheid message. He defended the CDU's main liberalizer, General Secretary Heiner Geissler in an interview in Die Welt Tuesday. And right-wing CDU members in West Berlin will launch a public attack Wednesday on Dr. Geissler's policy on German unification.

Chancellor and CDU Chairman Helmut Kohl, declining to intervene, is waiting for time to sort out his feuds. Yet even he finally got sufficiently exercised last month to threaten to resign in order to force coalition agreement on a long-delayed tax package.

Despite all the scuffling, it is unlikely intramural vexations will split the center-right coalition, topple the government, and send the Liberals back to the left coalition they abandoned in 1982. For now, the Liberals' hints that the coalition's policies on South Africa and modernization of short-range nuclear weapons are too far to the right seem aimed at increasing their bargaining power within the government.

As for the CSU, it hasn't threatened a suicidal split with the CDU since the late '70s. CSU politicians - unlike those Social Democratic leftists who welcomed the ideological purity of going into opposition in 1982 - tend to be far more interested in pragmatic retention of power than in grandstanding.

What is at issue, however, is the future character of conservatism in West Germany. Geissler wants to ``modernize'' the Union to win over permanently the one- or two-time CDU voters among middle-class workers made uneasy by the leftward swing of the Social Democrats in the mid-'80s. By contrast, Dr. Strauss and various politicians on the right of the CDU fear too many conservative votes might be lost to far-right nationalist splinter parties in such a reorientation.

These contrary pulls make for arguments over South Africa and taxes, over health and pension reform, abortion counseling, and German reunification.

Geissler wants the CDU to make social payments gladly, not to curtail health expenditures too much, and to state openly that its ``German policy'' does not see any possibility of reunifying Germany in the near future - and would not seek reunification without the consent of other European nations.

Tradionalists in the CDU right wing and in the CSU, upset by these views, fear the conservatives could lose their identity if the traditionalists accepts them. MP J"urgen Todenh"ofer grumbles that Geissler is just trying to turn out a modish variant of Social Democratic policy. Master baker and deputy Union parliamentary leader Hansheinz Hauser says that Geissler risks losing middle-class voters and warns, ``You have to earn a mark before you can distribute it.''

By far the most contentious issue in Geissler's new look is his German policy. Two points especially in his draft resolution for the key CDU convention in June offend old-timers in a party that for so long has preached German reunification: ``The solution of the German Question is not to be found at present,'' and German unity can be achieved ``only with the agreement of their neighbors in East and West.''

Geissler, who not so long ago was the CDU's chief hatchet-man against the left and is used to a good fight, revels in the fuss. He says Chancellor Kohl and the CDU executive committee are behind him, and to a large extent they are.

On German policy, however - even though the conservatives quietly adopted the Social Democrats' policy of pragmatic cooperation with East Germany when they came to power in 1982 - Dr. Kohl has so far confined himself to pointing out that final decisions are reserved for the party convention. Geissler's draft resolution is meant to serve only as a basis for discussion, he noted.

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