W. Germany's post-election blues: disarray even among winners

On the right, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss have been trading recriminations - while the Liberals have been purring. On the left, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Greens have been trading both insults and flirtations - while the SPD is drifting left, its center essentially leaderless.

This is the aftermath in Bonn of an election that left Dr. Kohl's center-right government with a 41-seat majority but a 4.5 percent drop in conservative votes - and left the SPD smarting as some 600,000 of its regular voters defected to the environmentalist, countercultural Greens.

In the days following the Jan. 25 election Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have been engaged in their usual arm wrestling over policy - and apportioning of blame for their 44.3 percent share of the vote. This was their worst performance since 1949. The two met for the first time since after the election Wednesday and publicly presented a united front.

But Kohl, who over the years has consistently outmaneuvered the CSU's much more forceful Strauss by indirect means, has been uncharacteristically blunt this time in attributing the low CDU-percentage in part to Dr. Strauss's campaign attacks on the junior member of the coalition, the Free Democrats (or Liberals).

Strauss, CSU chairman as well as Bavarian premier, is unrepentant and is insisting that the government must move more toward the right and CSU views in toughening antidemonstration and antiterrorist laws at home and favoring South Africa and West German arms exports abroad.

But Strauss's weight is diminished within the coalition after the lackluster CSU election showing, and this year's surge of voters toward the Liberals.

The conservatives lost an estimated 800,000 ``second votes'' (for proportional Bundestag representation after directly elected candidates are seated) to the Liberals.

As a consequence, the Liberals won 9.1 percent, or almost as much as the 9.8 percent of the CSU. Since it is only the addition of the Liberals that gives the center-right coalition its majority, the Liberals have strengthened their leverage within the coalition - and Kohl has strengthened his own hand by being able to play off the two wings of his coalition from the middle.

The jubilant Liberals are being careful not to push too hard; they say they do not want any additional Cabinet posts, but only a continuation of the coalition's first-term pro-d'etente foreign policy and maintenance of civil rights.

As for Kohl himself, he is disappointed by the conservative drop, and the left-of-center news magazines have resumed deriding him and speculating his party will dump him. But throughout his career Kohl has made a virtue out of being underestimated, and his majority makes it highly unlikely that he would step down.

In the opposition ranks the Greens, ecstatic at entering the Bundestag for the second time with an enlarged vote of 8.3 percent, are demanding equal rights in Parliament - and wrangling among themselves about whether or not to ally with the Social Democrats. The Greens feel they have proven their durability, and they want a vice-presidential post in the Bundestag and representation on the intelligence committee like all the other parties.

Some prominent reelected ``Realos'' (realists) like Otto Schily are again pushing for cooperation with the Social Democrats. The ``Fundis'' (fundamentalists) continue to view the Social Democrats with suspicion. They regard even a left-wing Social Democratic leader like Saarland Premier Oskar Lafontaine as, in the scornful words of Greens spokeswoman Jutta Ditfurth, ``a Hollywood boy.''

For their part the Social Democrats, discouraged by their 37 percent share of the votes, the worst SPD showing since 1961, are flirting with the idea of moving left to regain voters from the Greens.

Indications are that the party will select Hans-Jochen Vogel, its rather colorless parliamentary leader, as party chairman to replace Willy Brandt next year, then pass the wand to Lafontaine and the younger generation in the early 1990s.

There is no strong centrist candidate to challenge Mr. Lafontaine, following the decision this week by chancellor candidate Johannes Rau not to run for party chairman.

Party centrists therefore fear that Lafontaine's left-wing views - including advocating West German withdrawal from the military wing of NATO - could alienate voters at the center. Since this is where German elections are won, such a shift could doom the party to another decade out of power.

This would be particularly dangerous in that it would make the swing-vote Liberals unwilling to ally themselves again with the SPD as between 1969 and 1982, and this could turn the left into a permanent minority. The Greens are basically a splinter of the Social Democrats.

No majority therefore seems possible without reattracting the Liberals.

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