After Kohl, Germany Shifts Left

Sunday's win by Social Democrat leader Gerhard Schrder reflects trend in other European nations.

In the end, he overstayed his welcome.

Helmut Kohl, who had made so much history during his record-setting 16 years at Germany's helm, made it again as he lost last Sunday's elections: He became the first chancellor since World War II to be voted out of office by an electorate simply tired of a leader who had run out of ideas.

By turning in unexpectedly large numbers to Social Democratic candidate Gerhard Schrder, Germans expressed their desire for a fresh approach to their future as a new century beckons.

And the vote brought Europe's most pivotal nation into line with its neighbors, on the center-left. Spain is now the only major European country led by a conservative government.

But the transformations go beyond political alignment.

As Mr. Schrder, born in 1944, declared in his victory statement, "the voters have chosen a generational change."

For the first time, Germany will be ruled by men and women who have no firsthand memories of the war, or Nazi rule, presaging a less-anguished approach to foreign relations.

Also for the first time, it seems from the election results, the environmental party, the Greens, will join the national government, if only as a junior coalition partner with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

If Schrder invites them to join his Cabinet, Green leaders will enjoy influence unmatched elsewhere in the world to shape policy on everything from taxes to transportation along ecology-friendly lines. Details of Schrder's policy intentions, however, remain sketchy.

Change... with continuity

He won the elections by offering much-sought-after change, but at the same time he was careful not to frighten away the average conservative, consensus-minded German voter. Even in victory, as he addressed his supporters on Sunday night, he maintained this ambiguous stance. "It will be our task to modernize our country thoroughly and overcome the blockage of reforms," he declared, voicing one of his major campaign themes.

But he had scarcely drawn breath before also pledging that "I want to stand for continuity," the other message he had sought to convey.

Underpinning both these strands has been a call for social justice. And although Schrder has made much of the "new center" ground that he has captured, his sense of obligation to traditional SPD voters could make him hesitant to push through hard tax and pension reforms that everyone agrees are needed, but that would be painful and unpopular.

Indeed, the SPD is pledged to roll back even the timid reforms that Mr. Kohl's government enacted to make the labor market more flexible. That is hard to square with the trumpet calls to a more modern future that Schrder has sounded so enthusiastically. He and his aides have often urged more flexibility, along US lines, if Germany is to cope with global competition and to create more jobs.

Jobs the main issue

Unemployment, standing at 10.6 percent in August and affecting more than 4 million people, is clearly the country's main preoccupation, as Schrder acknowledged Sunday night. "My most important goal ... is the fight against the plague of mass unemployment," he said in a victory statement.

If Schrder's priority will be getting the economy right, that is largely because Kohl has left the broad lines of Germany's place in the world written in stone.

The Kohl legacy

The twin pillars of Kohl's achievement - European integration and German unification - are hardly problem-free. But it is largely thanks to Kohl that these keynotes of his 16-year rule are today established and uncontested fact, where once they were but dreams.

Indeed, the parallel tracks of Kohl's policy were indivisible from one another: It was only by championing his vision of a "United States of Europe" that he managed to allay his neighbors' fears about the powers and ambitions of a newly reunited Germany.

"Kohl's greatest legacy," suggests Prof. Dietmar Herz, who teaches politics at Bonn University, "is that he proved that even a united Germany was not a threat."

The chancellor was well ahead of his citizenry in his passion for Europe. His insistence that Germans should give up their beloved and trusted deutsche mark in favor of a new single currency - the euro - to be introduced next year, was highly unpopular.

But Kohl believed firmly that only by anchoring itself within a united Europe could Germany protect itself against a recurrence of its ugly past.

"For Helmut Kohl, Europe is an emotional idea," explains Professor Herz. "It represents a total change from old and bad German traditions, it means the prevention of war and of totalitarianism."

But for Schrder and his generation, European unification is just a normal part of European life - a more efficient and modern system of government and economic organization.

Indeed, that attitude is now commonplace throughout mainland Europe.

And if a once-lofty ambition is now a matter-of-fact reality, that is perhaps the best testament to what is already becoming known as "the Kohl era."

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