`Waterkantgate' jolts W. German conservatives - or does it?

Is there or isn't there a crisis in West German democracy following the political spying scandal in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein? Answers differed at the 35th convention of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservatives in Bonn yesterday.

Dr. Kohl, reelected party chairman at the convention, thinks there isn't. His keynote, if less buoyantly optimistic than usual, still expressed basic satisfaction with the course of politics and of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). And certainly with the current split of the West German left, there is no visible threat to center-right governance for Chancellor Kohl's remaining three years of incumbency and possibly longer.

Party Secretary-General Heiner Geissler, by contrast, citing a recent opinion poll indicating that more than 80 percent of citizens have lost faith in politicians, spoke of a ``crisis of confidence'' in both the CDU and other political parties. And while he does not see any broad ``crisis of credibility of our rule of law and democracy,'' he echoed various columnists in alluding to the grim example of the inter-war Weimar Republic, when popular mistrust of politicians helped Hitler subvert Germany's fledgling democracy.

Waterkantgate, as the scandal has become known in a bilingual pun, involved the commissioning by officials working for the Schleswig-Holstein CDU of private detectives to spy on the sex life of Bj"orn Engholm, the Social Democratic candidate for premier in the state election held last September.

Incumbent CDU premier Uwe Barschel denied all the charges but was unable to preserve enough votes to prevent a deadlocked legislature that will require a new vote in the spring. In October, Barschel was found in a Swiss hotel room, apparently after having committed suicide.

The state CDU reacted with contradictory instincts. Initially it repeated all of Barschel's denials. After Barschel's death - and especially at the state convention held over the weekend - some CDU politicians continued to defend him, while others made the assumption that Barschel alone had ordered the dirty tricks and that it was time to close the book on the affair and make a ``new beginning.''

A third inclination was represented by acting state premier Henning Schwarz, and even more by the state party's ex-ombudsman, Count Trutz Kerssenbrock. At the state convention Schwarz apologized publicly to the Social Democrats. Kerssenbrock, charging that the party was trying to sweep things under the rug, resigned his post as ombudsman.

This ``schism,'' as Geissler termed it, was reflected to a degree at the federal convention as well. In recent weeks, the federal party has been seeking to distance itself as much as possible from its state sibling, in order not to be besmirched.

In Bonn, Geissler praised Schwarz's apology and even carried it further in an unprecedented public apology for conservative attacks on Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s.

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