BONN — IF West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl wants to be reelected this December, he will have to avoid mistakes on the road to reunification. Each time this conservative chancellor hits a bump, the opposition Social Democrats charge that he's an incompetent driver.
``Everything is going to be very much affected by the unification debate and how that turns out,'' says a Western diplomat in Bonn. Indeed, reunification and everything related to it is the dominant campaign theme this year.
If monetary union occurs without inflation and mass layoffs (a tall order), for instance, then that will be a boon for Kohl.
If not, ``then the Social Democrats are going to point to a drop in the standard of living'' and jump all over the chancellor, the diplomat says. In their ``steps to German unity,'' which the Social Democrats laid out last week, they linked monetary union to social guarantees.
The SPD has already pounced on Kohl several times, most recently over his wishy-washy position on the Polish border.
On the domestic front, the SPD criticizes government handouts and support for East Germans moving to West Germany, arguing that this only encourages the exodus. Indeed, the flow continues unabated - and so does the resentment of West Germans who are competing for scarce housing. New East German arrivals now face one to two years of living in gymnasiums and barracks because of a lack of apartments.
Oskar Lafontaine, the likely SPD challenger to Kohl in December, wants to put an end to this special treatment. Moving from Leipzig to Munich should be like any move in West Germany: You find an apartment and a job first, he says.
For positions like this, the brash Mr. Lafontaine jumped 10 points in the West German popularity polls between January and February.
He won overwhelming support in this year's state election in the state of Saarland, where he was reelected governor. Nationwide, he beats Kohl's popularity by a long shot - although the SPD itself is neck and neck with Kohl's Christian Democratic Union.
``Lafontaine is so popular that, for the first time, the government looks to be in danger,'' says SPD spokesman Eduard Heussen.
Lafontaine is not shy about voicing public opinion that the conservatives would rather forget.
This is also true in the area of security policy. ``Kohl is wrong if he thinks Germany can stay in NATO,'' he said in a recent radio interview.
ALTHOUGH West German leaders constantly reassure alliance members that they won't walk out on them, the population in both Germanys doesn't share this strong allegiance.
Lafontaine ``has gauged the public mood accurately,'' says another Western diplomat here.
It's his opinion on security, however, that worries Britain, France, the United States, and other countries.
``The specter of the SPD is hanging over NATO,'' said a NATO diplomat in Brussels, who asked not to be named.
Right now, the SPD has reason to hope for an electoral comeback. Their sister party in East Germany is expected to make the strongest showing in East German elections on March 18, although the conservative alliance is catching up.
All West German parties have invested heavily in this election in anticipation of an all-German election after unity, which could still come this year.
Back in West Germany, the SPD has some state elections coming up in May, which could also give it a boost. They are expected to win one of them hands down and have a good chance in the other.
While Lafontaine pushes the populist button for the SPD, former chancellor Willy Brandt provides the balance in his role as elder statesman for the party. The popular Mr. Brandt, father of the Ostpolitik, which first broke the ice between West Germany and the East, speaks several times a week at crowd-drawing rallies in East Germany.
Despite these favorable points for the SPD, its recapture of the chancellorship is far from certain. Much rides on the East German outcome on March 18. The ease of transition to unity is also still a question mark. And in West Germany, where power rests in coalitions, a lot has to do with inter-party relations.
Last year, the rise of the nationalist Republicans pulled voters away from Kohl's conservative coalition.
This, of course, delighted the Social Democrats.
But this year, Republican support has waned, probably because, as the chancellor of unity, Kohl has stolen one of the Republicans' main causes. A key gauge of their strength will be local elections in the Republican home base in Bayern, also on March 18.