ON Dec. 2, when Germans go to the polls in the first all-German election since World War II, they will be considering only one question: Who can best manage the reunification transition? In a campaign where only the unity issue counts, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) appear untouchable. Oskar Lafontaine, the chancellor's opponent in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), has made little headway with his anti-Kohl, address-the-issues strategy.
At this point in their history, the Germans just want to get through the next few years as quickly and painlessly as possible.
The SPD's main selling point, that it stands up for the socially weak and disadvantaged, has won little support. The Germans trust Mr. Kohl, who has successfully managed unity so far, and they trust the CDU, perceived as the economically adept party.
``Lafontaine has a comprehensive model for a better, more just society, but who's paying attention to that?'' observes a diplomat in Bonn. ``On Dec. 2, voters are going to ask, `Who can do the job?' Kohl sounds like a reasonable choice.''
Public opinion polls put the CDU, with the Christian Social Union, its Bavarian sister party, on top, with 45.5 percent of the vote. The SPD is second with 35 percent. As usual, it will be necessary for the winning party to form a coalition in order to have a majority in the Bundestag, or parliament. But the CDU/CSU will have no trouble carrying on what has so far been a successful coalition with the Free Democrats, whose most well-known member is Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. (See story below.)
Unable to fight unity itself, many political observers in Germany say Mr. Lafontaine has no choice but to address the issues - even if no one is listening.
His strategy has been two-pronged. First, he has been attacking Kohl's handling of reunification, which took place on Oct. 3, saying the chancellor glossed over the accompanying costs and hardship.
Lafontaine has repeatedly demanded that Kohl come clean and tell the public how much reunification will cost. Unlike the chancellor, Lafontaine believes it will be necessary to raise taxes to pay for unity. ``I tell the truth!'' he told voters at a rally in Leipzig last month.
Second, he has hit the campaign trail with a sheaf of programs under his arm. Recalling the 127-year history of the SPD as a worker's party, Lafontaine proposes to fight soaring unemployment in eastern Germany with a massive state-led jobs program.
To fight unemployment, he suggests a massive, state-led jobs program. For a better environment, he wants to tax energy use, industrial waste, and emissions, and to abandon nuclear energy. On the social welfare front, he proposes that the state pay an automatic 200 DM ($135) a month per child to all families.
Had reunification never taken place, had this race occurred a year and a half ago, the SPD might very well have won with Lafontaine. In May 1989, the SPD was leading the CDU by 42 percent to 36 percent, according to Infas, a polling organization based in Bonn. On average last year, Infas says, West Germans preferred Lafontaine as a politician over Kohl.
Kohl's tax and health reforms were unpopular. The CDU was losing local elections, partly because of the rise of the right-wing Republican Party. Kohl himself, well into his second term, was seen as tedious. Leading members of his own party wondered aloud whether he should remain chairman of the CDU.
But then, ``Kohl's problems were overtaken by unification,'' says Emil-Peter M"uller, political analyst for the Institute for German Economics in Cologne.
Because of reunification, the Republicans lost their main issue and faded to insignificance. No one talks anymore about Kohl's controversial reforms. And the chancellor, says CDU spokesman Andreas Fritzenk"otter, is once again ``the indisputable leadership figure'' in the party.
Kohl's success, say political analysts and CDU members, is partly because he was in the right place at the right time, partly because of his own skill. ``Kohl did something about unity,'' says another diplomat in Bonn, who asked not to be named.
After the wall came down, the chancellor quickly responded with a 10-point plan for a German confederation, the diplomat points out. When that looked like it would be overtaken, he unhesitantly entered the road to reunification. He introduced the West German currency to East Germany in July and, a few weeks later, delivered Soviet approval for reunification - the biggest international hurdle.
The SPD and Lafontaine, on the other hand, never swung into the spirit of unity. Lafontaine, in fact, argued that things were moving too fast and wanted his party in the Bundestag to veto the treaty that replaced nearly worthless East German marks with the strong West German mark.
Part of the SPD's hesitance is explained by its traditional stance toward East Germany. The party long advocated official recognition of East Germany as a state, on the grounds that this could improve German-German relations and was, all things considered, a realistic policy.
Although Kohl and the CDU seem untouchable now, just wait until after the elections, when they must grapple with the social and economic problems of unity, say many political observers here.
Abortion, family issues, and the agenda of the CDU's eastern members may create a split between the party's traditional, Roman Catholic members and its more liberal wing, says Norbert Lepszy, a political analyst at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation near Bonn. ``There will be internal conflict,'' he says.