AS the countdown to pivotal federal German elections enters its final stage, a familiar pattern is raising concern about Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ability to retain power.
State elections Sunday in Bavaria confirmed two electoral trends that have emerged this year. German voters clearly prefer sticking with the incumbents. But they are also rejecting the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Mr. Kohl coalition's partner in Bonn.
For the seventh vote in a row - six state elections and June's European Parliament poll - the Free Democrats failed to gain the 5 percent of the vote necessary to win legislative representation. Unofficial results in the Bavarian election gave them about 3 percent of the vote, down from 5.2 percent in 1990 state elections.
Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, the FDP leader, called the outcome ``sad and undeserved.''
If the Free Democrats fail to break their losing streak in the Oct. 16 federal elections, it could prevent Chancellor Kohl from keeping the reins of government. It could also usher in a period of political instability in Germany.
The FDP's failure overshadowed the success of the Christian Social Union (CSU) - the Bavarian-based sister party of Kohl's Christian Democratic Union - which retained its outright majority in the state legislature.
THE CSU captured roughly 52 percent of the vote, down from a 54.9 percent tally in 1990.
The main opposition, the Social Democrats, meanwhile, boosted their share of the vote to 30.1 percent from 26 percent. The far-right Republican Party, which is also based in Bavaria, continued its steady loss of support, winning only 3.9 percent Sunday, down a full percentage point from 1990.
The fact that voters have opted to stick with the incumbents in most German state elections this year - including Lower Saxony, Saxony, Brandenburg, and now Bavaria - can reassure Kohl about his prospects for winning a fourth four-year term and becoming Germany's longest-serving postwar chancellor.
``Helmut Kohl can certainly consider the result of the last test [Bavaria] before Oct. 16 as support for his policies. But it's not worth much if his liberal partner [the Free Democrats] fail,'' stated an editorial in the Berliner Zeitung daily.
The most recent federal election poll, published by the Emnid Institute, indicates Kohl's Christian Democrats leading with 41 percent, while the Social Democrats have 38 percent. And despite their losing streak, the Free Democrats enjoy 7 percent support, according to the poll.
That would be enough for the FDP to retain its seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, but it still might not be enough for Kohl to maintain his present center-right coalition government.
A wild card in the October election is the Party for Democratic Socialism, the former East German Communist Party. If the PDS wins enough votes to enter the Bundestag, Kohl's coalition might fall short of a parliamentary majority. FDP failure to clear the 5 percent hurdle, meanwhile, could mean the end of the Kohl era.
The likliest alternative to the present governing alliance would be a so-called grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. But the two parties currently are bitter foes, indicating such a political shotgun marriage could be rocky.