THE reelection of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl by a slim margin on Sunday promises more of the same from Europe's biggest and most powerful nation - in the short term. Mr. Kohl has led Germany for 12 years now. With few other European governments long in office, and with recent Italian and Austrian elections ushering in right-wing forces, Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU) would like to present a force of stability, security, and reassurance to the German middle class, and to allies.
Kohl himself in two years will eclipse the term of the longest-serving postwar chancellor in Germany, the revered Konrad Adenauer. He is surely thinking of going down in history as a statesman who helped establish the preeminence of the deutsche mark in Europe, led the reunification of Germany, and kept Europe moving toward federal integration. The Kohl government will continue to support NATO, the European Union, and a status-quo center-right domestic policy based on a strong mark and tighter social spending. Yet Kohl's slim margin of victory, itself a comeback from low poll numbers in January, suggests a restlessness in the German electorate.
The overall coalition scored 48 percent, down from 54 percent in 1990. CDU's main partner, the Free Democrats (party of former Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher), squeaked out only 7 percent of the federal vote, down from 11 percent in 1990, and won no local victories.
This leaves Kohl vulnerable to attack from the slightly more proactive coalition of opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, both of whom scored much better - particularly the Greens, who had almost disappeared in 1990. Such voting lends credence to the idea that Germans voted for the CDU, but without enthusiasm. After the election both SPD and Green party leaders put on a show of attack-style rhetoric, vowing to unseat Kohl before the next federal elections in 1998.
The wild card was the Party of Democratic Socialists (PDS), the former communists in the East. They earned some 30 parliamentary seats not by scoring 5 percent of the vote, the usual manner - but by winning outright in three districts in the east. Were the opposition to join with PDS - unlikely though that would be - they could bring down Kohl.
Perhaps the real question now is: Will Kohl step down in two years and name a successor? For 12 years the chancellor has carefully eliminated all contenders. But he may groom a leader, such as Wolfgang Schauble, to give the party a strong lead for 1998. The Germans have never voted out of office a sitting chancellor.