BONN — HELMUT KOHL won reelection as Germany's chancellor, but the ultimate victory may go to his opponents.
The narrow margin by which Mr. Kohl kept his job in Sunday's election shows that his power base, built over 12 years in office, has severely eroded, reflecting voter worries over the economy.
Kohl indicates he will try to continue his current policies, including cutting back Germany's extensive social-welfare network and pushing for gradual economic deregulation. Germany's current pro-European Union stance, as well as close relations with the United States, should remain unchanged.
But unless Kohl makes concessions on social policies, especially taxation and environmental protection, the leftist opposition may gain enough strength to topple his government before the next scheduled elections in 1998.
``The losers are the political winners,'' stated the General-Anzeiger daily. ``The results are not enough for political change, even though the signs of the time have changed.''
Kohl's center-right coalition emerged with up to a 10-seat majority, winning 341 of the 672 seats in the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, according to official results. Overall, the coalition's percentage of the vote was 48.4 percent, down from 54.8 percent in 1990.
In 1990, Kohl rode the wave of euphoria surrounding unification to a resounding election win. The chancellor, more than any other German politician, was unswerving in the push for fast unification and was rewarded for it.
But mistakes brought on by the dash toward unification caught up with Kohl this year. The process saddled the country with a swollen deficit, prompting higher taxes. The strain has been compounded by high unemployment. Disenchantment has been especially high in eastern Germany, where the unemployment rate remains in the double digits.
Crucial to Kohl's win was the success of his junior coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, which cleared the 5 percent vote barrier needed to gain entry into the Bundestag. Setbacks in state elections this year had threatened the Free Democrats with political extinction.
Germany faces broad challenges in the coming years. The government must smooth over the bumps in the unification process, while maintaining economic competitiveness. In international affairs, Bonn wants to strengthen and expand the EU to include the formerly Communist states of Central Europe. Meanwhile, Germany will come under pressure from its allies to play a greater role in worldwide peacekeeping efforts.
Kohl insists he has a ``workable majority'' to achieve his agenda. ``A close result has one advantage - it imposes discipline,'' Kohl said in his victory speech. ``It will be difficult, but that's life.''
The chancellor's reelection to a fourth four-year term puts him in position to surpass Konrad Adenauer as postwar Germany's longest-serving government leader. Adenauer guided West Germany from 1949 to 1963.
The opposition, which won a combined total of 331 parliamentary seats, will make the going difficult for Kohl's coalition - the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union, and the Free Democrats.
Leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Kohl's main opposition, described as ``laughable'' Kohl's Bundestag advantage. They also said it would be impossible to implement decisions without their consent.
``One thing is for sure,'' SPD leader Rudolf Scharping said. ``We will certainly be governing in 1998 - or earlier.''
There is ample reason to back up Mr. Scharping's prediction. Most importantly, the SPD solidified its hold on the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat.
That chamber, which must approve all crucial legislation, comprises representatives of Germany's 16 states. The SPD made enough gains on Sunday in the states of Mecklenburg-West Pomerana, Thuringia, and Saarland to form a solid blocking majority in the upper house. SPD leaders hint they will resort to obstructionist politics if Kohl continues his current course.
Another element of volatility should come from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the former East German Communist Party. It won 29 Bundestag seats - up from its current 17 seats.
Throughout the campaign, Kohl condemned the PDS as ``fascists painted red.'' The PDS now appears ready to make trouble for Kohl, unless the chancellor reconciles with the ex-Communists.
``The other parties will have to comprehend that we aren't an East German relic. What we are has everything to do with this country today and very little with where we came from,'' said Gregor Gysi, the party's charismatic leader.
The election also saw the return of the eco-leftist Greens-Alliance '90 party, which won 48 legislative seats after failing to clear the 5 percent barrier in 1990. Greens leaders say Kohl's red-smear campaign tactics will make it more difficult to govern.
``I am worried about the political culture and political climate,'' Greens leader Heide Ruhle said. ``You have destroyed our political culture,'' she added, referring to the Christian Democrats.