West Germany's election campaign: confrontation takes the floor

West Germany seems determined to prove that it is not only the American electoral system that can indulge in a permanent election campaign.

And this campaign promises to stay interesting for the next 2 2/3 years.

In one corner is Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, in fighting fettle after ill health -- and with plenty of fights on his hands, from both the opposition conservatives and from his own Social Democratic Party (SPD).

In the other corner is perennial challenger Helmut Kohl -- challenging both Schmidt and the fresher chancellor aspirants who threaten to replace Kohl as conservative leader if he doesn't himself manage to oust Schmidt from the chancellery prematurely this year.

For the SPD the stakes are the 1984 general election. For Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) the stakes are the four state elections this year that could give the conservatives a blocking two-thirds in the Bundesrat (upper house).

Schmidt kicked off the permanent campaign with his surprise call for a vote of confidence in early February. This summons -- which was rallied to by his full 43-seat majority in the Bundestag (parliament) -- followed an upsurge in the chronic bickering between the coalition Social Democratic Party and Free Democratic Party. The arguments centered on a job-stimulation program to ease West Germany's worst unemployment in 30 years.

The unemployment is modest by American or British standards -- only 6.4 percent, seasonally adjusted. But that is small comfort to January's 1.9 million jobless or to the coal-and-steel Social Democratic Party heartland of the Ruhr, with its 9.7 percent unemployment.

The difficulties are compounded by an economic sluggishness and an oil crisis that have finally caught up even with Germany's postwar ''economic miracle.'' The result is the undermining of the whole SPD strategy of the past 20 years to settle all social problems by an infusion of more prosperity for all.

Under these circumstances the more activist (left) wing of the SPD convinced the economically more conservative Schmidt that even in a recession the depressant cost of higher taxes had to be paid to generate more jobs. Under these circumstances the classical nonintervention liberals of the FDP gritted their teeth and went along.

Under these circumstances the conservatives smelled a possible victory for the first time in a dozen years of SPD occupancy of the chancellery and vowed total opposition to the government's jobs program -- and, for good measure, to the SPD's foreign policy as well. No more would the conservatives woo the FDP back to the 1950s and 1960s conservative coalition by appealing to moderation and bipartisanship in policies toward the Soviet bloc. Now they would just wait for the FDP to fall, inevitably, into their laps.

The name of the game has thus become confrontation. West Germany's vaunted social consensus (and foreign-policy consensus) seems to be at an end, at least for the next 2 2/3 years.

In domestic affairs the conservatives' tactics are to deny the coalition its tax rise in the Bundesrat.

Coalition tactics are to castigate the conservatives as irresponsible spoilers who prevent the creation of new jobs, yet fail to offer any economic alternative of their own.

In foreign affairs the conservatives' tactics are reverting -- after a year's wooing of the FDP by bipartisan support for detente - to opposing Schmidt's, and especially ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt's, detente philosophically.

Schmidt's countertactics are to advocate an unemotional ''predictability'' vis-a-vis both West and East and to gather his European and Canadian allies about him in resisting the more hard-line sanctions against Moscow being advocated in some American quarters. Beyond this his tactics are to rely on America's foreign-policy moderates and his own good relations with US Ambassador Arthur Burns, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., and President Reagan.

In personal terms, the conservatives' tactics are to ask how Schmidt can govern sensibly when he can't even control his own left wing, with its loathing for new NATO nuclear missiles, its suspicions of the US, its credulity toward Moscow.

Within his own party Schmidt's tactics are based on avoidance. He is maneuvering to avoid any vote on (and clash over) new NATO missiles at the forthcoming SPD convention in April. He hopes to avoid a British Labour Party-style ideological clash at the convention between younger activist intellectuals and older pragmatic trade unionists. He is trying to avoid any open break with SPD Chairman Brandt by tolerating -- barely - brands courting of youthful left-wing environmentalists and opponents of nuclear weapons.

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