WEST Germany's opposition Social Democrats are in disarray over their candidate for chancellor in December's elections. After an on-again, off-again position on his candidacy, Oskar Lafontaine is on again. He is definitely running against West German Chancellor Kohl, the left-of-center Social Democrats announced in Bonn this week.
Mr. Lafontaine is an underdog with a knack for sniffing out public sentiment. He is a strong critic of Mr. Kohl's reunification policy, charging that the process is moving too quickly, that reunification as designed by Kohl will prove too costly, and that not enough consideration is being paid to the social upheaval that a fast-paced unity will cause in East Germany.
Justification for many of his views is borne out in public-opinion polls, but it looks now as if the sharp-nosed candidate went one step too far with his arguments.
``He's down one side of the hill and sliding,'' says a Western diplomat here.
The trouble started last month when Lafontaine, recovering from an assassination attempt in April, said that the Social Democrats in the Bundestag should not ratify the treaty that would allow the mighty West German mark to replace the weak East German currency on July 1. The treaty lays out the terms for economic, monetary, and social union of the two Germanys.
His position brought on a barrage of criticism, especially from Social Democrats in East Germany. Die Zeit, an influential newspaper published by Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt, a former chancellor, ran a Page 1 editorial calling Lafontaine ``the wrong man at the wrong time.'' The most recent poll shows the Social Democrats down nearly three points in two weeks, a big drop by West German standards.
In the wake of this criticism, it appeared last week as if Lafontaine would withdraw from the race. Party leaders trooped to his house in southwest Germany where he is convalescing after a knife attack by a mentally disturbed woman on April 25. They persuaded him to stay in the race, but to revise his recommendation to vote against the treaty.
The party leadership is in ``complete agreement'' that the treaty should not fail, otherwise there will be ``chaos'' in East Germany, said Hans-Jochen Vogel, the chairman of the Social Democrats, on June 11. Mr. Vogel tried to rescue the party's prospects by crediting Lafontaine with bringing up reunification problems that otherwise wouldn't have been publicly debated.
In the long run, however, Lafontaine's criticism campaign won't work, says Thomas Kielinger, editor in chief of the conservative Rheinischer Merkur weekly and longtime observer of the political scene here.
``Kohl knows his Germans. He knows that they will go into a self-pitying orgy, but that after that, they will roll up their sleeves and get down to business and do the job anyway.
``Lafontaine is taking the initial nervousness of Germans at face value and forgetting that we've got a job to get done,'' says Mr. Kielinger.
The ``attack Kohl'' strategy is a bad one, wrote Theo Sommer in the highly critical June 1 editorial in the daily Die Zeit.
``Skeptics have their place in politics,'' he wrote, ``but they must know what they want. Just `not wanting' doesn't qualify [a person] for a leadership post.''
The Social Democrats are in an especially difficult position this year, because many of their traditional causes - the environment, the unemployed, lower defense spending - have been overshadowed by the reunification issue or overtaken by change.
Lafontaine's emphasis on the costs of reunification could be fruitless, says Peter Gluchowski of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Though West Germans say they do not want to pay for reunification, in the end they may not have to. The West German economy is remarkably strong, growing at 4.4 percent in the first quarter of this year.
``As long as people perceive the economy is strong, they won't be too worried about the costs of reunification,'' he says.
To make matters worse, Kohl is pushing for an all-German election in December or January to replace what was originally scheduled as only a West German election. The Social Democrats oppose this timetable.
Though they did well in recent state elections in West Germany, at the moment their support in both Germanys - even with help from the Greens - is not enough to ensure him the chancellorship.