The era of statesman, economist, and sometime virtual deputy leader of the Western world Helmut Schmidt is at an end.
The West German chancellor called Sept. 17 for new elections that are expected to oust his Social Democratic Party (SPD) from power. This would return Europe's keystone country to up to a decade of conservative rule and polarize domestic politics into a right-left confrontation.
The end of Schmidt's era came when the 13-year-old coalition, reelected only two years ago with a handsome 45-seat majority, dissolved into bitter recriminations that developed their own momentum and pushed events past the rational calculations of either partner. Deputy-Chancellor and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the three other Liberal ministers resigned only hours before Schmidt would have fired them. They made public their intention to enter an immediate alliance with the opposition conservatives.
The United States can be glad that the breakup of the SPD and Free Democrats (Liberals) occurred over budget differences and sheer incompatibility rather than over grass-roots SPD opposition to American missiles due for mid-1980s deployment here. Schmidt had repeatedly threatened to resign if his party blocked the deployment - with the clear corollary being the same breakup of the SPD-Liberal coalition and shift of power to a Christian Democrat-Liberal coalition that has now occurred.
If the split had happened in 1983 - as it easily could have since the first missile is due to be deployed then - there would have been a fierce left-right tug-of-war here, with the US as the main rope.
President Reagan is already a bete noire of many young West Germans who are politically active as Greens, Young Socialists, Young Liberals, or have dropped out of politics altogether. The prospect now, however, is that this substantial and highly articulate minority will place primary blame for its increasing alienation from West German society on the new conservative West German chancellor rather than on the American president. Christian Democratic Chairman Helmut Kohl will probably become chancellor within a week.
In the surprising swiftness of the coalition shift, the conservatives seemed not quite prepared for the leadership that is now being thrust upon them.
Chairman Kohl is regarded as a lightweight by many in his party. There is still some question whether he can secure a majority in a secret Bundestag vote in which all of the conservatives (from the Bavarian Christian Social Union as well as the Christian Democratic Union), plus half of the Liberals, would have to vote for him personally.
In addition, there is no shadow cabinet waiting to take over, and - more importantly - there is no agreed conservative program on economic and foreign policy.
Nor is the complete process of transition yet clear. Constitutionally, Schmidt himself cannot advance the scheduled 1984 general election unless the conservatives agree, and so far the Christian Democrats do not want a new election until next spring.
By then the conservatives hope that their new ally, the Liberals will have had time to recover from the internal left-right split they are undergoing in the wake of their departure from the old coalition.
The Liberals, which reached their high point in 1980 with 10.6 percent of the vote, have only modest hopes for the coming election whenever it is held. Even without this latest fissure, the Liberals are threatened with extinction - i.e. falling below the 5 percent minimum vote for entry into Parliament - by the competition of the new Green ecology party. Already the Greens have out-polled the Liberals as the favored third party in West Berlin, Lower Saxony, and Hamburg, and will probably do so again in the Sept. 26 Hesse election.
Given the present political mood and economic unemployment, the conservative hope to win an absolute majority in the next election even without the help of the Liberals. Moreover, this time around - unlike in their 1950s and 1960s incumbency - their majority would be bolstered by numerous big-city conservative administrations and probably also a two-thirds majority in the federal upper house.
In urging an early election (possibly in November) in his parliamentary swan song, Schmidt invoked the virtues of responsibility and predictability. He acknowledged that the SPD - whose stock has been plunging in recent regional elections and opinion polls - will surely suffer losses in any general election held soon. He asserted that a vote is necessary, however, for the larger sake of West German democracy and a clear mandate for a new government to act decisively. In this context Schmidt pointedly blamed the Liberals and Genscher - the man whom he had worked so closely with for eight years - for the coalition breakup.
For the SPD, Schmidt's summons to an election - even an election in which it would lose seats - has the advantage of uniting the party in a way that would have been unimaginable at any time in the past two years. The standing ovation given Schmidt by the SPD in the Bundestag came not only from his own pragmatic wing of the party, but also from a left wing that has scorned Schmidt's own conservative economic policy preferences.
This new-found unity may initially keep the SPD more middle-of-the-road than it would otherwise have been in opposition, both on domestic issues like economic growth vs. environmental protection, and on foreign policy issues like East-West relations and new NATO missiles. Politicians of various persuasions expect that in the longer term, however, an SPD without government responsibility will move leftward to reabsorb the ecologists and varied leftist protestors who at this point have abandoned the traditional parties altogether.
A further advantage to the US in any early general election here - beyond the presumed rhetorical comfort that a new conservative government would afford Reagan - would be the staggering of US and West German elections. As things stand now, both countries have been going to the polls within a few weeks of each other every four years. This has put a premium on stepping up foreign policy polemics for domestic audiences in both countries at the same time - a coincidence that plays havoc with alliance negotiations requiring discreet compromise.