War's doubters find hands tied

Government ties, internal troubles, keep opposition parties quiet on

As the war in Kosovo drags on into its third month, and doubts build up in Europe about the efficacy of NATO's bombing campaign, the stage would appear set for opposition parties across the Continent to make political capital out of the conflict.

Instead, they have found their hands tied. Politicians from the right and the left are hedged in by public opinion, their own beliefs, and local political circumstances.

The result has been that European governments have enjoyed a remarkably free hand. At the same time, the nature of the "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo makes it hard to carp about NATO's effort to reverse Serb actions there.

"The sheer plight of the Kosovars ... takes the sting out of much criticism," says Adam Roberts, a professor of international relations at Oxford University in England. In more than one country, authorities have been further helped by the fact that their oppositions are weak and divided. In Britain, for example, the Conservative Party "is completely all over the shop" about Kosovo, says Professor Roberts.

"They don't know whether to criticize the government on the grounds that they want more and better war, or because we shouldn't be there in the first place."

In France, meanwhile, the opposition to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's Socialist-led coalition government is badly divided among three different parties. The largest, Rally for the Republic (RPR) has a particular problem: Its leader, French President Jacques Chirac, is a fervent supporter of the war.

"This is extremely awkward," points out Colette Ysmal, with the Paris-based Political Science Foundation, an independent think tank. "It obliges the opposition to support the government's policy, which makes their situation very uncomfortable."

In Germany, the conservative Christian Democrats have been disoriented since losing last year's elections, and seem unready to launch an assault on Chancellor Gerhard Schrder over a foreign policy question such as the war in Kosovo. Partly, political analysts say, this is because they have no alternative policy to propose, and partly because there is a strong feeling that Germany must show it is a loyal NATO partner, ready to shoulder its full responsibility.

In Italy, where the war is by no means popular, right-wing opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi has resisted the temptation to attack the government because he is working to present a reasonable image. His brief coalition government was marked by such internal strife that it was roundly defeated in the last elections.

If Europe's traditional conservative parties have sought little political advantage from the war, neither has the only Social Democratic party now in opposition, the Spanish Socialist party. This has something to do with the fact that the party's candidate for prime minister in next year's elections resigned recently, creating a party crisis. And Spain's best known socialist, former premier Felipe Gonzalez, backs the NATO intervention.

Common to all the major parties in all the European countries that have sent soldiers, planes, and pilots to the conflict is a reluctance to criticize the war while "our boys" are in harm's way.

This has left it up to the smaller parties, often on the edges of mainstream politics, such as Italy's Northern League, to rally opposition to the NATO action, and bolster their popularity by attracting NATO critics. But their small constituency is often further limited by circumstances. In France, for example, the Communist Party, which has been calling for a negotiated settlement, is not free to carry the opposition standard because it is part of the ruling coalition, as are the Greens, another party opposed to the bombing. In Germany too, the Greens are allied with Mr. Schrder and recently decided not to jeopardize their position by formally condemning the war.

Similarly in Italy, the Greens and Communists in Massimo D'Alema's coalition government are unwilling to risk their Cabinet posts by coming out too strongly against NATO policy.

On the far right of the spectrum, the neo-fascist National Front in France has made much of its opposition to the bombing. But a falling out between party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and his deputy, Bruno Mgret, has split the party and left it in two much reduced halves.

THE only significant party in Europe to have profited from its opposition to the war is the German Democratic Socialist Party, the former communists who have further fortified their stronghold in eastern Germany, where many voters are angry at the US-led war against Yugoslavia.

But as the campaign for coming elections to the European parliament has revealed, the war in Kosovo is not high on the public's political agenda, and international affairs - even a war on your doorstep - do not swing many votes.

In the end, says international relations expert Roberts, opposition parties' reluctance to oppose the war comes down to "a sense that whatever the unwisdom of a lot of the original policies, NATO must not lose, and Milosevic must not win. Those views are sufficiently strong throughout Europe that the opposition cannot make a lot of political capital out of what is going on."

* Lucian Kim in Berlin and Richard Wentworth in Rome also contributed to this report.

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