Bribery charges shake W. Germany

The resignation of West Germany's second-highest official over the Flick scandal is shaking both the Kohl government and the faith of young West Germans in their democracy.

Bundestag Speaker Rainer Barzel, second only to the President in protocol terms, was forced by his Christian Democratic Party to resign Thursday after it was revealed that he had accepted some 1.7 million deutsche marks (about $600, 000) from the Flick conglomerate between 1973 and 1979.

The Flick affair had already toppled one Cabinet minister. Last summer Liberal Otto Lambsdorff, economics minister under both the center-left coalition of the late 1970s and early '80s and of the center-right coalition formed in 1982, resigned to prepare his court defense. He has denied the indictment charge that he accepted bribes to give Flick an 800 million mark tax break (since disallowed) on capital gains between 1978 and 1981.

A second scandal over political financing also hit the conservatives Oct. 25, when a Cologne court ruled pharmaceutical entrepreneur John-Werner Madaus guilty of evading 300,000 marks in taxes in donating 566,000 marks to the Christian Democrats via party-related foundations and organizations. Mr. Madaus acknowledges the donations but says he thought they were not illegal, since high-ranking politicians discussed these donations with him.

A young Bundeswehr officer, referring to the ''Flick Republic'' and the repeated evidence of political corruption, commented sadly that ''the whole system of democracy is suffering with our generation.'' His father, a senior politician, tried to convince him that the strength of democracy was that such abuses do come to light. But he himself wondered if there is now a ''crisis in the system.''

In the Flick affair Dr. Barzel maintains he had no hand in the tax exemption; he was chairman of the Bundestag economics committee from 1977 to 1979, but he was then in opposition and had no influence over the economics and finance ministries, which gave the approval.

Barzel also maintains that the Flick money had nothing to do with his stepping down from leadership of the conservatives in 1973 in favor of Helmut Kohl, the present chancellor. His resignation resulted instead from rejection by the Christian Democrats when he more or less tried to reconcile the party to the Social Democratic chancellor's new policy of rapprochement with Eastern Europe. (Ironically, Kohl government itself embraced that policy a decade later.)

The Christian Democrats accept that Barzel did nothing illegal. If no tax evasion or bribery is involved, the law is permissive on political contributions by industry and on payments of ''consultancy'' fees. Nor is there any financial disclosure requirement for Bundestag members.

Barzel's fellow Christian Democrats were upset to learn he was feathering his own nest so generously when he was a full-time member of Parliament and was also being paid half the party chairman's salary after he retired as chairman.

Moreover, new revelations in the Flick scandal made the conservatives fear Barzel had become a political liability and would drag the party down with him unless he were compelled to resign.

For Christian Democratic Chancellor Kohl the political danger is not so much that voters will think the Flick concern ''bought'' Dr. Kohl's way to the top - a charge made by Green MP Jurgen Reents. The danger is rather that younger voters in particular will attribute to the conservatives the everyday collusion with big business that the Greens are constantly accusing the conservatives of.

Thus, in one of the latest leaks from the Flick investigation, the Suddeutsche Zeitung has reported that Flick gave the bulk of its political contributions in the 1970s - 15 million marks' worth - to the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union (the CDU's junior Bavarian partner) , and their related foundations. The Suddeutsche Zeitung, citing records of former Flick financial officer Rudolf Diehl, reported that Flick also paid 4.3 million marks to the Social Democrats and their related foundations and 6.5 million marks to the Liberals and their related foundations. It is thus generally accepted that all the Bundestag parties except the Greens have dirty hands in accepting semi-disguised contributions from business.

All of this fits neatly into the Green image of West German ''establishment'' parties in general and of the conservatives in particular. Ever since the ecological, antinuclear, and countercultural Greens appeared on the scene five or so years ago, they have charged the establishment parties with being the puppets of industrialists. They have also charged the conservatives with never disavowing ex-Nazis in their ranks (a moot point now that this generation has either retired or died), and with never dissociating themselves from the judicial murders of Hitler's courts.

Such arguments carry a special resonance in Germany because of the bad experience with pressure groups in the inter-war Weimar Republic and with industrial- ists' collusion with Hitler in the 1930s and '40s.

Partly because they feel the Greens are cleaner than any of the established parties, some 30 percent of new voters cast their ballots for the Greens in last month's local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, and a similar preference is widely expected in local elections in Baden-Wurttemberg next Sunday.

Polls currently show the conservatives dropping in public esteem. The latest Emnid questionnaire, sponsored by Der Spiegel magazine, gives 5l percent to the conservatives and Liberals and 48 percent to the Social Democrats and Greens. This is still a majority (or would be if the Liberals could top the 5 percent hurdle for legislative seats), but it is a sharp drop from the 56-44 preference for the center-right in the 1983 federal election.

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