A POLITICAL scandal and an electoral setback are straining Germany's Christian Democrat-led governing coalition, and are providing a test of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's political resolve in the face of upcoming federal elections.
The governing coalition's skill at damage-control will not only affect Mr. Kohl's prospects in parliamentary elections next October, but it also could have broad ramifications for a Europe struggling against recession.
Many European nations are looking to Germany to lead a continent-wide economic recovery. But Germany's ability to provide leadership on economic matters, as well as be an active participant on thorny issues such as Yugoslavia, may be hampered if Bonn becomes absorbed by domestic political wrangling.
Some leaders of the coalition parties in Bonn are calling for immediate countermeasures to arrest the plummeting popularity of Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that has been in power for almost 12 years.
Results from the Dec. 5 local elections in the eastern German state of Brandenburg showed the CDU's fortunes have fallen dramatically since German reunification in 1990.
Official figures gave the CDU's main opponents, the Social Democrats, 34.5 percent, the highest total for any party. The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) - the former Communists - won 21.2 percent and the CDU garnered 20.5 percent.
``The Chancellor has to pull in the reins,'' says Erwin Huber, secretary-general of the Christian Social Union, a Bonn coalition member.
Chancellery officials, meanwhile, indicate that Kohl isn't about to make any major changes. ``We'll have to make greater efforts to show what we have achieved.... If we go further along this way, I'm sure we will have good chances ... next year,'' says Friedrich Bohl, an aide to Kohl.
The Brandenburg vote came on the heels of two political affairs. One was the withdrawal of Kohl's hand-picked presidential candidate, Steffen Heitmann. The other involved the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, where the government was forced to resign Nov. 28 because of allegations of financial impropriety.
The Saxony-Anhalt scandal sparked speculation that the two main Bonn coalition partners - the CDU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) - were ready to go their separate ways. A split would cause the government to fall.
The FDP had insisted on snap elections in Saxony-Anhalt. But such a move was opposed by the Christian Democrats, who feared another electoral defeat. In the end, the Free Democrats backed off and a new CDU-led government took office early December.
Leaders of both parties are playing down possibilities of a split. Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, who heads the FDP, said Dec. 5 there was ``no alternative to the current coalition.''
But some leading CDU supporters privately continue to question the FDP's dedication to the coalition, saying the Free Democrats are chronically indecisive.
Though the situation looks grim, CDU supporters say they are not panicking. They add that there is a long way to go until the October elections. A key to any political comeback will be Kohl's will to win in October. Dissatisfaction with his party leadership is rising within the CDU, according to German media reports. But political observers say no one in the CDU is in position to replace the chancellor.
Kohl himself has not reacted publicly to the Brandenburg vote. But earlier he admitted his coalition was in trouble. ``We have a tough recession ... we don't have the wind at our backs,'' Kohl told German television.
Though he may recognize the problems, Kohl has not been taking much action, prompting some political analysts to speculate that after being in power so long, Kohl and the CDU lack the energy needed to reverse their fortunes.