AFTER months of emotional debate, a political consensus has emerged in Germany that the country should amend its Constitution and tighten its liberal laws governing political asylum.
The turning point came when the opposition Social Democrats, under urging from party leader Bjorn Engholm, voted at a special congress late Nov. 16 in favor of a "faster and simplified" process to handle the droves of asylum-seekers entering Germany.
The Social Democratic Party (SPD) has long opposed any change in the asylum law, which was established to rebut the racist policies of the Third Reich and is more liberal than any other in Europe.
With the opposition hurdle removed, the government's coalition parties will meet with the SPD this week to begin hammering out a compromise bill to present to the Bundestag (parliament).
Such a compromise will likely involve two essential elements:
* The speedy rejection of asylum-seekers coming from so-called "safe countries," where no persecution is believed to exist.
* A streamlining of the overburdened appeal system. Germany will continue to adhere to the international Geneva Convention on Refugees.
The force driving the left-of-center SPD and the center-right ruling coalition parties toward compromise is fear that frustrated citizens will abandon them and swing behind the emerging right wing.
"The issue of asylum is not suited for interparty disputes. If you deal with this theme irresponsibly, the only winners are right extremist parties. The democratic parties will lose," says Dieter Wiefelsputz, a Bundestag member and an SPD asylum specialist.
The established political parties in Germany watched with alarm last April as just this scenario played itself out in local elections.
Campaigning against "phony" asylum seekers, the far-right Republikaners gained 10 percent of the vote in the southern state of Baden-Wurttemberg, at the expense of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Chancellor Helmut Kohl's party.
In Bremen and Schleswig-Holstein in the north, the extreme-right Deutsche Volksunion gained about 6 percent of the vote at the expense of the SPD.
A new poll by ZDF television shows that 73 percent of Germans believe the asylum law is being abused and 61 percent want it changed. Meanwhile, the violent attacks on asylum-seekers by right-wing extremists have turned the asylum issue into a crisis for Bonn.
"We will have 18 elections in 1994.... What I'm really afraid of is a landslide in the political landscape. It reminds me of the coming up of political extremist parties in the late '20s," says Heiner Wegesin, a specialist on asylum for the CDU in the Bundestag.
"I'm positive we'll come to an agreement [with the Social Democrats]," Mr. Wegesin says. "We'll simply have to."
This year, Germany expects nearly 500,000 asylum seekers (double last year), many of them economic refugees from Eastern Europe. Sixty percent of refugees heading to Western Europe come to Germany, though in the end, less than 5 percent are granted political asylum. Many Germans have begun to resent their presence in the face of rising unemployment and a severe housing shortage here.
The government in Bonn says it wants to protect legitimate asylum-seekers, but it also wants a "normalization" of German law so that it resembles asylum procedures in other European countries, such as France and Switzerland.
Between 1991 and October of this year, the number of asylum-seekers in Switzerland dropped by more than half, says Heinz Schoni, spokesman for the Swiss Federal Office for Refugees. "The essential element here was a speeding up of the asylum process," he says.
The Swiss changed their asylum laws in 1990. Anyone caught abusing the process, for instance by filing several applications under different names, is now automatically shown the door. (The Swiss can track this through computerized fingerprinting.) Switzerland also relies on "safe country" guidelines to help weed out economic refugees, and it has fast-forwarded its decision and appeal process, in part by more than doubling personnel.
"It's not worth it anymore to come here, stay for three months, and then have to leave again," says Mr. Schoni.
The Germans can imitate some of Switzerland's administrative improvements, but they will not be changing a crucial element: Whereas the rest of Europe makes political asylum a right bestowed by the state, and thus which the state can adjust as it wants without having to make constitutional changes, Germany has made it an individual's right, anchored in the Constitution.
IN Germany, this means anyone who utters the magic word Asyl has the right to apply for asylum and thus to stay here, enjoying social benefits, until the case is decided. The burden is on the state to prove that the individual is not being persecuted in his home country. These rights can mean two years residence in Germany while an asylum-seeker's case is pending.
The CDU's original goal was to shift the guaranteed right of asylum from the individual to the state. But neither the Free Democrats (the junior partner in the coalition government) nor the opposition SPD will agree to change the individual right, known as Article 16, because of its historic anti-Nazi significance.
As a result, the Christian Democrats are having to give up their approach, and the all-party talks beginning this week will more or less focus on streamlining the asylum process - changes which will still require an amendment to the Constitution and a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag.
Even with a constitutional change, it will take time to implement a new law. "It will take a year until [any new procedure] really functions," says Fritz Fliszar, director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, affiliated with the Free Democrats. That is cutting it awfully close for Chancellor Kohl, who faces the voters again in 1994.