GERMANY'S political landscape is full of booby traps planted by the electorate. And now the politicians must try to avoid them.
At stake is the stability that German voters have yearned for since the nation emerged from the horrors of World War II.
The broader danger is that a politically disoriented Germany might be less able to tackle economic problems at home and promote stability abroad, not just in Europe - where it is the largest economic power - but in the world in general.
Only a couple of missteps could break the fragile configuration established by Germany's Oct. 16 federal elections.
The fate of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's reign, as well as the future of several political parties, depend on their ability to move nimbly while handling responsibility.
Chancellor Kohl, handed a slim majority of only 10 seats in the Bundestag, or the lower house of Parliament, seems to have little room for maneuver. He faces both short- and long-term threats to his tenure, now 12 years and counting.
This week, Kohl's Christian Democrats opened talks with his coalition partners - the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU) - on a new power-sharing arrangement.
Kohl wants things to go quickly to demonstrate the government's cohesion. But the Free Democrats, who need to show they aren't Kohl yes-men, may prove hard bargainers. Possible sticking points include the centrist FDP's desire to offer Germany's 7 million foreign residents dual citizenship. That is something the arch-conservative CSU vehemently opposes.
A hitch in coalition negotiations could complicate Kohl's reelection bid for chancellor. The vote is scheduled for mid-November. His slim majority means he needs virtually unanimous support from coalition members. In the last chancellor vote, in 1990, 20 coalition legislators voted against Kohl.
The chancellor also faces a constitutional challenge to his 10-seat majority. Results of the Oct. 16 proportional party vote should give Kohl's coalition only a two-seat majority. But quirks in Germany's two-vote system raised the coalition's advantage to 10 seats because the Christian Democrats performed so well in the constituency portion of the elections.
The constitutionality of so-called overhang parliamentary seats is being challenged by a Frankfurt lawyer. A successful challenge would restore the wafer-thin two-seat majority, increasing chances of legislative stalemate.
Meanwhile, within Kohl's own Christian Democrat Union (CDU), discontent is simmering over the chancellor's autocratic style. Younger party members have called for broader intra-party debate.
The underlying complaint is that Kohl, after more than 20 years as CDU leader, rejects outside input and makes all major decisions himself. That method, the CDU's Young Turks believe, harms the party's long-term prospects.
Competition on all sides
Like the CDU, many party leaders across the political spectrum believe some retooling is necessary to be competitive in future elections. The situation is most urgent for the FDP and the Democratic Socialists (PDS), the phoenix-like party of former East German Communists.
Though the FDP gained 6.9 percent of the Oct. 16 vote, enough to retain its federal parliamentary presence, it remains in a desperate struggle for survival. The party's power base was wiped out by poor showings in nine state elections this year, in which the FDP failed to clear the 5 percent barrier to win seats in local legislatures.
The party will have a hard time staving off extinction unless it quickly rebuilds its support in the states. But to do that, it will have to walk a tightrope.
``The party must demonstrate its independence if it is to be taken seriously, but such independence is dangerous for a governing coalition with such a tight majority,'' commented the Berlin Tageszeitung daily.
Already, the crisis has provoked rifts within the FDP, but so far party leader Klaus Kinkel has successfully beaten back challenges to his leadership.
FDP failure would create a vacuum in German politics not easily filled. The FDP has served as a kingmaker party for much of the federal republic's history, joining coalitions with both major parties - the CDU and Social Democrats - to form stable governments. Steady coalitions would be harder to form without the centrist influence of the Free Democrats. All other potential kingmakers are on the wings of the political spectrum - the Greens being on the left and the CSU the right.
From pariah to kingmaker?
The PDS aims to be another potential left-wing kingmaker. But at the moment it finds itself a political pariah because of its Communist heritage. Shedding the totalitarian stigma holds the key to the Democratic Socialists future viability, yet it is the old Communist stalwarts who form the party's backbone today.
Few establishment politicians would be sorry to see the PDS disintegrate. But its demise might further alienate the 19 percent of the eastern German population that voted for it Oct. 16, making the task of completing reunification's unfinished business more difficult.
Playing on dissatisfaction with reunification, the PDS won 30 Bundestag seats, based on its dominance of eastern Berlin, where it won four of five constituency votes. To survive, however, it must boost its popularity in western Germany, where it gained less than 1 percent of the vote.
To broaden its Western appeal, the PDS already has launched a purge of die-hard Communists and former East German secret police collaborators. For example, Kerstin Kaiser-Nicht, who was to have become a PDS Bundestag member, was pressured to give up her seat because of past ties to the old Stasi security service.
The risk is that the purge may become a Pandora's box, possibly unleashing a chain-reaction of recrimination that implodes the PDS. Many party officials with suspect pasts are now sure to come under intensified scrutiny, including its charismatic leader Gregor Gysi.
The PDS de-Communization struggle should culminate with a January party convention. ``Either it [the meeting] will lead to its renewal, or its destruction,'' commented the Suddeutsche Zeitung daily.