W. German vote: Kohl holds the edge. On hostage issue, voters seem to want known leaders at helm

The continuing crisis over the kidnapping of Germans in Beirut apparently failed to affect yesterday's election in West Germany. As of this writing, the center-right government was on its way to re-election as expected, according to preliminary returns and projections. The environmentalist Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP, or Liberals) were both increasing their share of votes over that of 1983. And the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was improving slightly over its poor 1983 percentage. This year, as usual, economic issues were paramount, election analysts say. The news from Beirut, if it had any impact, only confirmed voters' desire to keep a leadership they know at the helm.

Much has been written about the shift of mood in West Germany from the antinuclear, anti-establishment surge of four years ago to conservative complacency today. But an analysis of the vote over the past 25 years reveals an extraordinary stability.

If early returns are borne out, this election will have followed the pattern of every election in the past quarter century in showing a steady 40-plus percentage for the conservatives and a steady 40-plus percentage for the left, with the small crucial balance going to the Liberals. Opinion pollers here identify West Germany as the only modern industrialized democracy without a significant floating vote.

Thus, it was the Liberals' jump from a right to a left alliance that gave the chancellery to the Social Democrats for the first time in West Germany's history in 1969. And the Liberals' jump back into the conservative camp returned the chancellery to the Christian Democrats in 1982. West Germans vote the center, and they consciously keep the Liberals alive in order to brake the more extreme positions in whichever coalition they join.

The blackout on news about the disappeared businessmen Rudolf Cordes and Alfred Schmidt certainly helped dampen voters' emotions about the hostage-taking. The blackout is generally accepted by the public as necessary to help save the lives of the two hostages. Members of the crisis task force that met yesterday in the chancellery refused to confirm persistent press reports, for example, that the two abducted Germans are now in the hands of Abdel Hadi, the military chief of the militant Shiite organization of Hizbullah, and allegedly the brother of Muhammad Ali Hamadi, the terrorist suspect now under arrest in West Germany.

Nor will the Bonn government say much about its willingness either to extradite Hamadi to the US for trial as Washington is requesting, or to deport him, as the Germans' abductors apparently want in return for sparing Mr. Cordes and Mr. Schmidt. All that is known is that the West German ambassador to Lebanon has met with Sheikh Fadlallah, the religious leader of Hizbullah, to ask for his help in securing the release of the two Germans. Weekend reports that two additional West Germans had been kidnapped in Beirut are unconfirmed.

Against the backdrop of the murky Lebanese drama the West German elections looked especially humdrum. As of this writing Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), were winning 42.9 percent, well down from their 48.8 percent in 1983. The coalition's junior partner, the FDP, was pulling in 8.6 percent, or well over its 7 percent in 1983.

The main opposition party, the SPD, was getting 39 percent, or somewhat more than its 38.2 percent in the 1983 election, its worst showing in 22 years.

And in only their second time to be elected to the Bundestag the countercultural Greens increased their share of the votes from 5.6 percent to 8.2 percent.

Dr. Kohl's northern conservatives, while disappointed by the Union's sharp drop, see the overall vote as approval of their vision of an optimistic future and rejection of the SPD's and Greens' pessimism about the environment and nuclear power. And the Bavarian conservatives see the results as a signal that they should keep badgering the Liberals to move to the right on foreign policy and law-and-order issues.

As for the left, it looks like it is facing a long-term split that can only cheer the conservatives. The Greens attracted a few ballots from conservative voters distressed by the Chernobyl nuclear accident and chemical industries' pollution of the Rhine. But their main constituency is disgruntled Social Democrats - and if they stay permanently disaffected, the Social Democrats would not be able to form a majority government even if the Liberals were ready to switch back to the left in the 1990s.

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