Germans Spurn Politics as Usual, As Disillusionment Takes Hold

Soaring costs of reunification and the strains of absorbing asylum-seekers are weakening the two major political blocs that have led the German government since World War II

THE deep disappointment Germans are registering with the way Helmut Kohl's government has handled the challenges of reunification and the sensitive issue of asylum may alter the traditional coalition mathematics of the Bundestag - and Germany's political future.

Moreover, political scientists are finding troubling indications of a trend away from political engagement: Voter turnout, though still high, is falling, and party membership and other forms of participation are regarded less favorably.

"There's a great risk of fragmentation," says Jochen Thies, a political analyst and the managing editor of Europa Archiv. "There is danger in the asylum issue, that if it is not more or less settled, the fragmentation will go on."

"The basis of the political stability of the Federal Republic [of Germany] is its economic strength," says political scientist Dieter Roth. With Germany in a slowdown, if not a full recession, the strains of absorbing the expected 400,000 asylum applicants this year are apparent.

Germans are signaling unhappiness, not only with Chancellor Kohl's conservative coalition, reelected less than two years ago, but also with the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Some observers say politicians are focusing too much on the Maastrict Treaty on European economic and political union while displaying reluctance to condemn violence for fear of alienating far-right voters.

To speak of a "drift to the right" in Germany is, for historical reasons, to sound an alarm. But elections are won "to the right of the center," says Finance Minister Theo Waigel, chairman of the rightist Christian Social Union (CSU).

Even politicians to his left seem to be heeding his motto. In a move seen as an appeal to the center and right, the SPD leadership has decided to pursue a constitutional change to restrict the right of asylum. In defense of the decision, party chairman Bjorn Engholm says, it is not a bad idea "to keep an eye on what moves the people."

The SPD members of the Bundestag, the federal parliament, broke with their leadership and boycotted Thursday's vote on a proposal to alter the Constitution to restrict the right of asylum. The SPD is to hold a special conference next month on whether to adopt the leadership's new policy proposal.

The question of dealing with the influx of foreigners has been framed by all the parties largely in terms of constitutional and other legal changes to restrict that influx; the situation is reminiscent of American proposals to balance the budget deficit by constitutional amendment.

Meanwhile, violence against foreigners, mostly attacks on asylum-seekers' hostels, continues unabated, with 1,400 assaults so far this year. No clear government counterstrategy is in view.

The president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Eckart Werthebach, has said that in the situation, including skirmishes between right- and left-wing extremists, he sees "direct parallels between the Weimar Republic and today."

Dr. Thies claims the Nazi past has become "historicized." He adds: "You won't persuade a young German these days that you can't vote for the [far-right] Republikaner [party] because of the Third Reich."

He sees a weakening of the two major blocs - the Christian Democrats with the CSU, and the SPD - that have led governments in postwar Germany, with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) holding the balance of power. Typically a coalition has required 40-plus percent for one of the major parties, plus 10 percent or so for the FDP.

"But this game is over when the big parties are drawing closer to 30 percent than 40 percent of the vote," as they are now, Thies says, and the FDP drops into single digits. He also raises the possibility that eastern Germans may form a political party of their own, further fragmenting the electorate. "There are signs that they don't feel well represented" in the current party structure, he says.

The alternative to the traditional big-party-plus-FDP coalition would likely be a hard-to-maneuver "grand coalition" or unity government.

Dr. Roth, a political scientist at the polling organization Forschungsgruppe Wahlen in Mannheim, notes that polling results in the middle of a four-year term are "normally very bad for the governing parties." It is unusual, however, for a government's approval rating to be this low. "We know why the governing parties are doing so badly: The voters feel the parties aren't addressing the problems," Roth says. Nor does he see much opportunity for the SPD at this point.

ON the other hand, he is confident that the Republikaner will draw insufficient support to win seats in the Bundestag by the next election in 1994, unless the asylum issue remains unsettled. His organization has determined that two-thirds to three-fourths of the ostensible supporters of far-right parties are really protest voters, trying to send the mainstream leadership a signal. This is especially common in state rather than federal elections, Roth says. Speaking of the Republikaner, Roth adds, "These protest voters can be reached by the big parties rather easily - not only by the governing parties but the SPD."

Other analysts are less sanguine, seeing considerable passive support for the far right among the population and noting that in the asylum debate, the far right has finally found a central issue around which to organize support: "Germany for the Germans" is their slogan.

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