Free Fall of Free Democrats Reshapes German Politics

THE German ''motor of Europe'' may start sputtering if the nation's small, centrist kingmaker party cannot make itself more popular.

The Free Democratic Party (FDP), junior member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's governing coalition, is facing Jurassic status, which could drastically reshape Germany's political landscape and raise questions about the stability of Europe's economic powerhouse.

An announcement Thursday that Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel planned to step down as the Free Democrat chief confirmed that the party has gone into crisis mode. (While relinquishing his party post, Mr. Kinkel intends to continue with his diplomatic duties.) A new party boss will be elected at a convention in June.

Party faithful hope that the leadership shuffle will restore the FDP's profile after more than a decade of obscurity in Chancellor Kohl's shadow. A coalition with such a dominating personality as Kohl has caused the Free Democrats to lose touch with its voter base, experts here say. But it is uncertain that the FDP can reconnect with the electorate.

''Maybe the time for the FDP is just over,'' says Stefanie Wahl, a political scientist at the Institute for Economic and Social Research in Bonn. Trying to pin the FDP down on issues, Ms. Wahl continues, ''is like trying to nail pudding to a wall.''

The centrist Free Democrats -- who champion economic deregulation and individual rights -- have traditionally helped provide Germany with the stability necessary for economic prosperity.

Since World War II, the FDP has been part of virtually every government, allying at times with both major parties, the left-leaning Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats.

But a string of electoral disasters in state elections over the past year threatens not just the party's future. The most recent setbacks occurred in May 14 elections in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Bremen.

In both elections, the FDP failed to win 5 percent of the vote and is not entitled to representation in the state legislatures. The only times the FDP has surmounted the 5 percent barrier in the past year were last October's federal elections and a state vote in Hesse in February.

But the May 14 votes dashed any hope that the FDP was on the rebound. The party now finds itself with representatives in only four of Germany's 16 states. The lack of influence in Germany's regions raises questions about the FDP's viability on the federal level.

''The young generation finds that their issues -- mostly environmental and social questions -- are best represented by the Greens. And those who are more conservative vote for [Kohl's] Christian Democrats,'' Wahl says.

The FDP personnel shuffle had opposition politicians quickly predicting the imminent demise of Kohl's coalition.

''The foundation upon which the Kohl government rests is growing weaker,'' trumpeted Rudolf Scharping, leader of the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD).

Kohl himself says the FDP's troubles pose no threat to the coalition's ability to govern -- even though it enjoys a slim 10-seat majority in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.

And neutral observers are hesitating to condemn the Kohl era to oblivion, but most feel the evironmentally oriented Greens, who have made large electoral gains this past year, are rapidly eclipsing the FDP as the third force in German politics. This shift appears to herald a new age in which the Greens and Social Democrats jointly wield power.

''Whether the Bonn government will survive the legislative period will depend on how the FDP is able to avert its looming decline,'' wrote the centrist Mannheimer Morgen daily in an editorial. ''If it wants to rise phoenix-like from the ashes, a miracle must happen.''

Political change would shift Germany's economic priorities, especially in issues connected to the environment like industrial emissions. It could also affect deregulation of the economy.

The Kohl government argues excessive regulation creates high labor costs that are in turn threatening German competitiveness. The SPD and Greens favor more state influence in the economy.

In any case, the FDP's weakness raises doubts about Kohl's ability to press ahead with deregulation plans despite resistance from political opposition and from Germany's powerful unions.

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