At 5,144 Days and Counting, Germany's Kohl Still Red-Hot

Call him the marathon man: On Oct. 31, Helmut Kohl will complete 5,145 days in office and surpass Konrad Adenauer to become the longest-serving chancellor since the Federal Republic of Germany was founded in 1949.

Long dismissed as a bumbling provincial, Mr. Kohl is now, after more than 14 years in office, the senior leader of the major Western democracies. He is on first-name terms with Bill (Clinton), Boris (Yeltsin), Jacques (Chirac), and the rest. He is a figure most people here and abroad seem to feel generally comfortable with to lead Germany - and Europe - through a new era of unity and integration.

"He is big and powerful, but fat and easygoing - hardly a threatening figure of German nationalism," observes Martin Sskind, Bonn bureau chief for the daily Sddeutsche Zeitung.

And all but the slowest of Kohl's critics have had time to learn not to underestimate him.

But he has failed to prepare a successor, and so, like any long-serving leader, he risks tarnishing his historical reputation as he keeps plugging away at work he is evidently convinced no one else can do.

Besting Bismarck

The next record to beat is that of the original unity chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who helped forge Germany from an assortment of petty states. He governed from 1871 to 1890 under the Kaisers. His record will fall if Kohl wins another four years in 1998, as appears entirely possible.

And despite some storm clouds on Kohl's horizon, he is in much better political shape at this point in his career than Adenauer was at 14 years. Kohl was just reelected as chairman of his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by 95.5 percent of the vote. And his overall approval rating as chancellor is at 68 percent - up from 60 percent four years ago - according to a poll by the television network ZDF.

Kohl's place in history has been secure since he seized the opportunity presented by the opening of the Berlin Wall and persuaded the victors of World War II to allow German reunification, a chain of events that took place his eighth year in office. Rather than retire in triumph at this point, however, Kohl got his second wind, ran, and won in 1990, and was reelected in 1994.

'Laundry list' of work to do

He will need that second wind. Much political work remains. The economy needs restructuring to generate jobs more easily - a process arguably delayed by reunification. The country's current social security safety net is seen as too expensive. Reunification must become a grass-roots reality as well as a legal fact. The European Union is to be further integrated and expanded eastward. A new European currency is to be introduced. And a way, or ways, must be found to provide security for Central and Eastern Europe without providing unnecessary insecurity for Russia.

Consensus-builder

Hitherto Kohl's natural inclination to consensus building and the maintenance of harmony, in public at least, has been a good fit with the prevailing political culture. The tradition of public and parliamentary debate remains underdeveloped in Germany.

Not everyone is convinced that the traditional consensus model is going to enable Germany to make thorough-enough reforms in the years ahead, however. Indeed, Kohl had to depart from it somewhat to get his austerity program through parliament earlier this year. Nor is it clear that the chancellor's style helps bring new ideas and conflicting analyses to the fore.

Jochen Thies of the Deutsche Welle broadcasting service in Cologne has publicly called for Kohl to step down. He pronounces the consensus model "finished" and predicts, "We are seeing the Indian summer days of Helmut Kohl." He explains Kohl's appeal to the public in these terms: "He has been the one to guarantee that change would come as slowly as possible."

'New face' or no change?

Mr. Thies says polling data show that people are looking for a "new face." A recent poll by the INRA research institute for Focus magazine found that 32 percent of voters say Kohl should run again, and 41 percent say he should not.

But the same poll also showed him beating the two likeliest opposition candidates in one-to-one matchups. And 60 percent of respondents said they expected no change in government after the next election. As one Bonn observer puts it, "What the Germans want is not always what the Germans vote."

The succession paradox is perennial, in politics and elsewhere: To prepare a successor is to prepare to be succeeded. Kohl is known for being willing and able to eliminate rivals within his party.

One analyst who doesn't want his name used observes that Kohl is doing to his party what Franois Mitterrand did to the French Socialist Party - damaging it by controlling it too tightly.

Among the usual suspects to round up in any discussion of a succession are Wolfgang Schuble, his parliamentary leader; and Volker Rhe, the defense minister.

Besides fending off potential challengers in his own party, to stay in power Kohl must continue to please the centrist Free Democrats. Though the smallest of the major parties in the parliament, they are critical to Kohl's majority, and he tends the relationship carefully.

The chancellor "has learned the lessons" of history, says Hans-Peter Schwarz, a political scientist at the University of Bonn.

Kohl himself knows that the greatest danger of the Kohl era coming to an end is not from the voters directly - who have never ousted an incumbent chancellor - but for a junior coalition partner to withdraw support.

Kohl "has survived so far," says Mr. Schwarz, "because he has subordinated all other concerns to the maintenance of the alliance with the Free Democrats."

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