GERMANY'S Social Democrats are mired in domestic and foreign policy disputes that threaten to mar electoral gains and split the party as it enters its congress today. Party officials say too much bickering could nullify hard-fought regional victories gained recently after last December's humiliating defeat to Kohl's conservative coalition in national elections. After decisive triumphs in Hesse state and Rheinland Palatinate, the SPD governs nine of Germany's 16 states and holds a majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament.
One of the most divisive issues is whether German troops should be deployed abroad in peacekeeping operations. Under pressure from allies to shoulder more of a burden in the international arena, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government has proposed constitutional changes that would authorize the nation's armed forces to take part in military operations outside NATO boundaries under United Nations auspices.
Although there are dissenters in conservative ranks, the proposal has unleashed fierce debate in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which could block the changes in parliament with a unified vote. Debate over ``out of area'' troop deployment promises to dominate the agenda of the four-day SPD congress here, although officials had hoped to focus largely on domestic issues, where Mr. Kohl is viewed as very vulnerable. Wrangling over whether to move the federal government from Bonn to Berlin is also expect ed to enliven the fray.
Kohl, who was criticized internationally earlier this year for the German lack of participation in the Gulf war, supports the constitutional change. Bj"orn Engholm, who is to be formally elected SPD chairman this week, says he agrees in part, but insists the troops should only serve as peacekeepers, with no deployment where armed conflict appears inevitable. That position has already pitted the dapper governor of Schleswig-Holstein against SPD patriarch Willy Brandt and Hans-Jochen Vogel, the retiring p arty chairman.
Mr. Brandt and Mr. Vogel say they will support the constitutional change as long as German troops are under direct NATO command and the German parliament approves the deployment. Others strictly oppose any such involvements.
SUPPORTERS of the change say a united, economically powerful Germany cannot ignore its global responsibilities. They insist the presence of German soldiers in such situations need not be tinged with the legacy of Germany's Nazi past.
Says Horst Niggemeier, an influential SPD lawmaker: ``It is quite understandable that the world expects more from us now than just checks,'' a reference to Germany's insistence on making only financial contributions to the Gulf war.
Others say they want no part of an arrangement that could force Germany to deploy troops in situations like the Gulf conflict. That view has considerable support. Oskar Lafontaine, who was defeated by Kohl in national elections last year, heads a powerful wing of the party that is adamantly opposed to such deployments. ``I don't believe that a majority in the SPD will vote for a change,'' Mr. Lafontaine says.
Wolfgang Thierse, SPD vice chairman, says he's worried a rancorous debate could obscure other important issues. ``The debate has become so emotional that it could destroy the congress,'' Mr. Thierse says. ``This fight could prevent the party from sending a clear message on national policy issues.''
The Social Democrats have not occupied the chancellor's office since Helmut Schmidt's government collapsed in 1982, bringing Kohl and his Christian Democrats to power.
Although it's unclear whether Mr. Engholm has ambitions for the chancellor's office, many Social Democrats view him as their best hope to dislodge Kohl in 1994. Engholm has quickly risen to become one of Germany's most popular figures. Recent polls rank him far ahead of Kohl, trailing only to perennial favorite, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.