German Election Won't Affect Peace, Security

Tired of political pathos? Washington's seamy scene at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Moscow's meltdown, deadlock in a Japan haunted by recession?

Look instead to Germany and its election Sept. 27 for comfort that politics can be worthwhile.

The stakes are high, as one might expect in Europe's most populous country, an economic powerhouse, geographic core and political keystone of the European Union.

Germany's 60.5 million electorate is not tripping through the tulips, it is making choices that will resonate on the continent as it faces its own economic, generational and social problems. Chief among them is unemployment, almost 11 percent of the work force - nearly 20 percent in the eastern provinces. That is a rate not seen since the Great Depression when it helped bring Adolf Hitler to power.

Not a twinge of any such fear is felt today, but it has cast a shadow over the welfare state the Germans built up in the past 40 years. Wages, vacations, benefits, and pensions became so generous that the cost of German labor is among the highest in the world. In manufacturing it is an average $28 an hour compared with $18 an hour in the United States.

That high labor cost is a real burden for a country that must export for a living, and it's made worse by the growing number of pensioners in an aging population.

Joblessness has dominated the election campaign.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, running for a fifth four-year term, read his countrymen the riot act two years ago. Calling for greater productivity, he boomed that a job is not a rest cure. (A stay in a spa is one of the health benefits in some labor contracts).

HE has tried to trim payments under the state-financed pension and unemployment systems.

The unexpectedly huge cost of German reunification - the West has sent $100 billion a year in cash and credits to the East since 1990 - has meant higher taxes and much complaining in the West.

Mr. Kohl, nonetheless, pursues a policy of affirmative action as a moral obligation to the people of the Eastern states.

Small wonder that the chancellor has been trailing the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate in the polls, although the gap has been narrowing. He also has the handicap of having been head of the government longer than anyone since Bismarck.

Kohl's achievements are unchallenged. He seized the initiative in reuniting Germany and is a prime mover in uniting Europe. Democracy flourishes, inflation is at rock bottom, and the D-Mark is as good as gold.

A bear of a man, Kohl personifies confident continuity - his opponents call it stagnation. Unemployment is his albatross. Many people of both parties simply want a change.

Despite this, Kohl's prospects are by no means hopeless. They might be if the SPD had real answers to the nation's questions.

But the SPD has campaigned with reassuring generalities such as an undefined "third way" between Kohl's conservatism and the socialism in which the SPD had its roots.

One of its slogans is "We won't change everything, much we will do better." The party has a strong candidate: personable, articulate, telegenic Gerhard Schroeder, 14 years younger than Kohl.

His appeal to the voters, aiming at the center, borrowing from Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, is bright and novel for Germany. But Mr. Schroeder's speeches are criticized as fuzzy.

One observer notes, "He says very little, at great length."

Kohl is said to be counting on a heavy turnout. He may well get it. In the Bonn republic's 12 national elections, voter participation has averaged 85.7 percent.

In one way, the outcome seems certain.

The center will win, either as center-right with Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU) on top, or center-left with the SPD. There is even speculation that they might join in a grand coalition, with Kohl resigning.

The world can watch Sunday's election with equanimity.

Foreign policy was hardly an issue. Under CDU and SPD chancellors, Germany has steered a straight course toward Atlantic community and European unity.

IT has made warm peace with all its neighbors. This summer, Germany, Denmark, and Poland agreed to form the staff of a multinational army corps to which each would assign a division of troops in case of need. The corps' official language, incidentally, will be English.

Fifty years ago, under the enlightened patronage of the victorious western powers, the Germans gave themselves a constitution that has preserved freedom and the rule of law.

It created a federal state looser than the US, able to move smoothly into a full European Union.

In other words, in terms of peace and security, it probably doesn't matter who wins Sunday's election.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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