Four months before the West German election the familiar flurry about a shift in Liberal loyalties has erupted -- and subsided. The upshot is leaders of the small Free Democratic (Liberal) Party -- which for the past quarter century has basically decided which coalition would govern the country -- have again sworn fealty to the present center-right government. This should assure its reelection, according to opinion polls.
Most pundits believe the Liberal protestations, if only because it's too soon after the party's last change in 1982 for any realignment toward the Social Democrats to be credible. That change toppled Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and replaced him with Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Resentment over the Liberals' ``betrayal'' still runs high among Social Democrats.
The latest round of speculation was set off by a Spiegel magazine report Monday claiming that the Free Democratic Party (FDP) might again join forces with the Social Democrats after the January general election.
Just such a center-left coalition ruled West Germany from 1969 to 1982, following a ``grand coalition'' that shut out the FDP from 1966-69, and a conservative-FDP coalition before that.
FDP General Secretary Helmut Haussmann promptly denied the Spiegel report. Press commentary Tuesday accepted this and viewed the whole episode primarily as new maneuvering in the constant infighting within the governing coalition. On the right, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) cordially dislikes the FDP and loses no opportunity to say so.
On the left, on social (but not economic) issues, the FDP reciprocates the hostility and is waging a battle today over CSU desires to amend away West Germany's constitutional guarantee of political asylum. FDP insistence on preserving this right is the one current issue on which Liberals and Social Democrats do in fact see eye to eye, but the FDP's position is generally expected only to block a majority for radical rewriting of the asylum law, not to lead to a breakup of the government.
In their most recent comments, FDP leaders have made it clear that their allegiance to the present coalition presumes continuation of the former Party Chairman Hans-Dietrich Genscher in the post of Foreign Minister. CSU Chairman and Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss has made little secret of his view that Dr. Genscher's decade in office is long enough and that Strauss himself would make a better foreign minister.
Genscher was one of the engineers of the 1982 split with the Social Democrats and has always been careful to distinguish his small party from whichever senior coalition party it has been allied with.
Such attempts to cut a clear profile for the FDP will surely reappear in the forthcoming campaign, but for now Genscher is stressing his own proximity to Chancellor Kohl.
FDP denials of any left-liberal flirtation are restricted to the federal level. At the state level various Liberals are considering resuming coalition with the Social Democrats, especially in Hamburg.
Such fluidity is routine in the FDP, which consists of two sometimes feuding wings, a right wing reflecting classical European liberal philosophy in opposing government limitations on management, and a left wing reflecting classical liberal adherence to strong civil rights.
The FDP will in any case have its own separate electoral platform.
It is not yet clear whether the sister parties of Dr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and Dr. Strauss's CSU will have a common platform or not. This week, in an effort to move the Christian Democrats more to the right, CSU spokesmen are threatening to write their own policy recommendations.