Germany's Kohl Takes Hit As Pick for President Quits

DURING his 11 years in power, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has built a reputation for uncanny political instincts that has allowed him to dominate German politics.

But many friends and foes alike are suddenly wondering whether Mr. Kohl has exhausted his leadership potential, following the Nov. 25 decision by the chancellor's hand-picked candidate, Steffen Heitmann, to withdraw from the presidential race.

``The failure of his [Kohl's] candidate illustrates a dramatic loss of power and a loss of his grip on reality,'' says Gunter Verheugen, head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the main opposition to Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

For Kohl, the Heitmann affair comes at a bad time: Germany is just starting to gear up for what promises to be a hotly contested federal parliament election next October. With many citizens disgruntled by Germany's stubborn recession, the governing CDU-led alliance will be hard pressed to fend off political challenges not just from the SPD, but also from radical parties on both the left and right.

``Kohl has rid himself of a problem, but he is weakened,'' said the Frankfurter Rundschau daily in a commentary.

Last September, Kohl tapped Mr. Heitmann - a little-known justice minister in the eastern German state of Saxony - in an attempt to smooth tensions between western Germans and those living in former communist East Germany.

But Kohl's daring strategy began backfiring almost from the start, doing more to divide the nation than to unite it.

Leaders of the Free Democratic Party, a member of the coalition, expressed anger over not being consulted in Heitmann's selection. Some of Kohl's party leaders, meanwhile, quietly resisted the nomination.

But it was Heitmann himself who caused the most controversy. Soon after his nomination, he sparked an uproar by suggesting that Germany should no longer feel burdened by Nazi-era atrocities. He also hinted that too many foreigners were living in Germany. Such statements won Heitmann praise from neo-Nazi groups, but damaged the CDU's stature.

In stepping down, Heitmann called on all parties to agree on a single candidate for president. He put forward the name of another eastern German, Richard Schroder, an SPD theologian.

But prospects are poor of a unified candidate. The SPD says it is sticking with its candidate, Johannes Rau, while the Free Democrats continue to support Hildegard Hamm-Brucher. And the Christian Social Union, the other coalition partner, already has nominated Roman Herzog, chairman of the German Constitutional Court. A special national assembly on May 23 will select the new president, replacing incumbent Richard von Weizsacker.

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