Political freefall for Germany's once mighty

New allegations emerged yesterday in the country's biggest scandal

A made-for-TV thriller couldn't pack in more: A world-renowned elder statesman brought to his knees by hubris; a moralizing Christian political party caught in a web of corruption, campaign slush funds, secret bank accounts, and contributions from shady international arms dealers.

The scandal engulfing the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany's most successful postwar party, has it all. And it has been a long time in the making.

"This scandal marks a long overdue end to a piece of the old West Germany we knew for 40 years," says Klaus Hartung, political commentator for the weekly Die Zeit. "The CDU is now going through a transformation the other parties have already been through."

Nearly every day for the past five weeks, since former Chancellor Helmut Kohl confessed to accepting $1 million in illegal campaign funds between 1993 and 1998, new revelations about the party's finances have emerged.

The present CDU party boss, Wolfgang Schuble, admits the party is in "the worst crisis of its history." And despite last week's resignations - Mr. Kohl as honorary CDU chairman and former Interior Minister Manfred Kanther from parliament - the drama shows no sign of abating.

Yesterday, French and German television reported that the government of the late French President Franois Mitterrand allegedly transferred more than $15 million to CDU coffers in 1992, in connection with the purchase of an east German refinery by the French state-owned oil giant Elf Aquitaine. The reports added to turmoil following Thursday's suicide of the CDU's parliamentary finance chief, Wolfgang Hllen, and the admission that $2 million dollars is missing from party coffers in the state of Hesse.

An audit of party finances by international chartered accountants Ernst & Young is expected to be released today.

With very few exceptions, the party has roundly turned on Kohl, its formerly unassailable patriarch, who led the party for 25 years, the country for 16, and who is credited with being the architect of German unification. The party leadership continues to demand that Kohl name the sources of the off-the-books funds. Speculation abounds as to their identity - from German industrial magnates, to underworld figures, to foreign-interest peddlers.

Worse still is the possibility that there are no unnamed private donors at all, but that funds may be tied to other scandals from the party's past.

Since the scandal broke last month, Kohl has dropped conspicuously from sight, saying that he gave his "word of honor" not to reveal the contributors, although he concedes the campaign funds were in contravention of German law.

"There can be no question of a word of honor when you broke the law," says Stephan Schwartz, a former CDU parliamentary deputy. "Breaking the law is not honorable." Mr. Schwartz, a member of the "Kohl generation" of young CDU loyalists, says he is "very bitter and disappointed" in the man he held to be his mentor. "For Helmut Kohl, the position and legacy of his party were everything," Schwartz says. "He obviously lost consciousness of right and wrong. He felt that in the name of a just and right cause, for Germany or the CDU, it's all right for him to violate the law."

The scandal has incensed the German public and even the usually tolerant conservative media. A recent opinion poll taken by a German public television station shows that the party's popularity plummeted more than 20 points over the past two months.

In the past month alone, after a string of regional election victories over the ruling Social Democrats, CDU support fell 11 points to 32 percent. The Social Democrats, meanwhile, jumped four points to 45 percent.

"Many conservatives feel they've been cheated," says political commentator Mr. Hartung. "Perhaps naively, they really believed the CDU stood behind its own ideals. It turns out to have been about maintaining power at all costs."

Even its sharpest critics concede, however, that during the postwar decades the Christian Democrats played a key role in bringing West Germany firmly into the Western European fold, including paving the way for European integration.

At first a broad umbrella party for conservative Protestants and Catholics, workers and industrialists, the CDU gradually came to embrace a more mainstream version of conservatism than the deep-seated nationalism that had tainted German conservatives in the past. The CDU either marginalized or quietly incorporated more extreme right-wing elements that found no other home in the postwar German political landscape.

This accomplishment has thwarted the success of ultra-right parties in Germany, in contrast to France, Austria, or Belgium, where they sit in the national legislatures. Now, some fear, a weakened and discredited CDU could open the door for overtly xenophobic right-wing parties to emerge.

"If everything really goes badly, we will experience the rule of the discontents," warned historian Michael Strmer in a recent interview. Disenchanted voters, he says, will turn "to the far left and the far right, like in [the] Weimar [Republic]."

Although the CDU may be going through a necessary process of renewal and regeneration, it is still far from clear who will lead the party into a new era. Kohl's heir, Mr. Schuble, has himself admitted to receiving $520,000 from an international arms dealer, cash that ended up in a secret slush fund. A parliamentary inquiry has begun to investigate the party's financial dealings, including the possibility that the donations were bribes to influence government policy.

"It could drag on for a while," says Detlev Claussen, a sociologist at the University of Hannover. "My fear is that people's patience will come to an end before the legal process takes its full course."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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