HELMUT KOHL is the Houdini of European politics. Appearances notwithstanding, Germany's bulky chancellor seems able to escape from any tight situation. But with elections looming in mid-October, President Clinton's best friend abroad - though more popular than ever - faces a trap.
When Mr. Kohl first took charge of his Christian Democratic Union in 1973, foes dismissed him as an interim leader, not versed in policy and uninspiring as a speaker. But two decades later he is still in charge. Once derided as the ``lowest common denominator'' in his party, Kohl is now part of its every equation, building a large network of allies, balancing rival claims. He is unchallenged from within.
Kohl has succeeded in his boldest ambition - to remain chancellor. Germany's chief of government is selected by a legislative majority, which requires building coalitions. Since 1982 Kohl has had a partnership with the Liberals, who slip in just above the 5 percent minimum vote customarily needed for parliamentary seats.
Kohl has spent much time dodging bullets - anti-NATO protest, joblessness, a party finance scandal, cabinet quarrels. For years, voters dismissed him as a dull pol lacking world stature. Bonn teemed with rumors of his ouster. But his coalition presided over solid economic growth, a surprising number of domestic reforms, and policies strongly supportive of NATO as well as European unity. So long as it held a majority, the chancellor was secure.
In late 1989 Kohl got what he called a ``gift from heaven.'' The East German police state crumbled. With US help, the chancellor pushed skeptical colleagues and allies toward national reunification. On a famous summer evening in the Caucasus mountains, he sealed the deal with Mikhail Gorbachev to ensure a pullout of Soviet troops within four years. Kohl's standing shot up dramatically.
Since then he has been on a roller coaster. Eastern Germans blamed him when unity brought factory closures rather than the prosperity he promised. Recession plagued the once-flourishing West. Anti-foreigner violence tarnished Germany's image. As Kohl urged patience and cooperation, his popularity slumped. Rudolf Scharping's opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) readied for a Clinton-style campaign based on change.
But in recent months some Easterners have seen signs of rebuilding. Western recovery is coming sooner than expected. Kohl has won credit for tutoring Mr. Clinton - like himself, once governor of a small, backward state and known for political comebacks, not diplomatic skill. Suddenly Germans hear an American president admitting he often says ``I agree with Helmut'' at international summits. August's farewell to the Russian troops offered a timely reminder of who made reunification happen.
Voters show a sudden, belated appreciation for Kohl's stature and mastery of the political game. Some 60 percent now see him as competent, a ``winning type.'' Mr. Scharping, meanwhile, though governor of the state from which Kohl launched a national career, shows less talent for controlling his party.
Yet, ironically, the very parliamentary system that has allowed Kohl to survive low popularity may cancel his new appeal. His government may well lose its majority if the Liberals slip below 5 percent, or if another scenario unfolds.
Reunification produced some losers - old Communist functionaries and younger professionals. Embittered by defeat, they carry on under a new name, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). Support from Easterners hit hardest by factory closures bolsters its claims to be a voice of regional resentment.
The PDS falls short of 5 percent in national polls. But an obscure provision of German electoral law exempts any party from that minimum if it can win local district races, which the PDS - with support concentrated in East Germany's worst-off cities - can achieve. Thus it could hold the parliamentary balance after October's election, narrowly denying Kohl's coalition a majority. While visibly relishing his popularity, the chancellor is thus worried. Blasting SPD readiness to ally with the ex-Communist PDS in one East German state and warning that this experiment might be repeated nationally, he calls the election a decision on democracy. Critics respond that conjuring up cold-war ghosts to discredit his opponents will fail. The heated campaign's outcome is uncertain.
Washington is used to Kohl. It is counting on him to push for freer trade, support for Bosnia, aid to East Europe, and a German role in United Nations peacekeeping.
United States leaders have often been warned to prepare for the post-Kohl, only to be greeted by a familiar face at their next summit. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.