Regional Free Democratic Party leader Walter D"oring has urged the party faithful to prevent a ``diktat by Strauss'' in the Jan. 25 election, referring to Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss. Mr. Strauss's Christian Social Unionists are equally blunt in calling on voters to reject soft-headed FDP notions about civil rights and d'etente. So is the Free Democratic Party (FDP) running against the Christian Socialist Union (CSU)? Not at all. From the decibel count one might think so. But actually these two parties are in the same center-right coalition that all the opinion polls say is a shoo-in for reelection.
And that's the problem. As the ``hot phase'' of the campaign begins, coalition candidates are wasting little time on the opposition Social Democrats whom everyone is discounting. They are concentrating their fire on each other in the important battle for post-election plums.
The greatest plum of all, the Chancellery, is already taken by Helmut Kohl, chairman of the largest of the three coalition parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). That leaves the next best plum as the Foreign Ministry. There Dr. Kohl seems inclined to keep the tiny FDP's Hans-Dietrich Genscher on in his 13th year as minister. (The nimble Mr. Genscher first served a Social Democratic chancellor in that post for eight years, has served Dr. Kohl for the past four years, and has largely made good his claim for ``continuity'' in a foreign policy of alliance with the West and d'etente with the East.)
It is precisely that continuity that so offends CSU Chairman Strauss. Strauss keeps asserting that he would conduct a much better foreign policy than Mr. Genscher - and deserves the post because of the greater number of votes the CSU brings the government. His negotiation of 1 billion marks' worth ($500 million) of credits for East Germany demonstrated that he wouldn't change pragmatic good relations with East Berlin. But he would stop demurring at various American military policies, he would support the South African government to the hilt, he would stop flirting with various black nationalists in Africa, and he would remove the legal fetters on West German arms sales to South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and other foreign countries.
On the whole, the centrist Kohl is glad to have the FDP as an ally - the latest Allensbach Institute polls project some 6 percent of votes for it, a small but crucial addition to the 46.8 percent for the Union parties - as a counterweight to Strauss's pressures on the government to move right. The CDU is, as always, annoyed by the FDP's perennial open bid to steal ``second votes'' from its senior coalition partner. (First votes go directly to local candidates, while second votes by party determine proportional representation in Parliament.)
For the past 25 years the swing-role FDP has depended for its survival above the 5 percent minimum for parliamentary seats on voter interest in braking whichever large party the FDP has formed a coalition with.
The FDP makes much of its liberal civil rights and laissez-faire economic planks, but in the end much of its campaign attraction still rests on this chronic negative function.
Although it is considerably more cautious in distancing itself from Kohl than from Strauss, the FDP also sees a role for itself in moderating some of Kohl's more negative public comments about the Soviet bloc. Kohl's criticisms are interpreted by observers here as attempts to assuage right-wing voters whose own direct spokesmen have actually been given short shrift in the CDU candidate lists this year.