The spiraling campaign-finance scandal surrounding Germany's leading conservative party reached a turning point yesterday, when Wolfgang Schuble announced he would not seek reelection to the posts of chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and of the party's leader in parliament.
With the departure of Mr. Schuble from politics, the party is making a decisive break in an attempt to renew its political fortunes.
Schuble, the handpicked successor of disgraced CDU patriarch Helmut Kohl, Germany's longest serving chancellor since World War II, has been under intense pressure to resign for weeks.
On Tuesday, the president of the Bundestag, or parliament, slapped a $20 million fine on the CDU for its secret party bank accounts and slush funds.
CDU deputies have rebelled against their leadership, whose credibility has been battered after weeks of revelations of high party officials sanctioning unreported donations and even accepting bags of money from secret benefactors.
Despite intense pressure, Mr. Kohl has refused to name the sources of large donations during his 16 years in office, calling it "a matter of honor."
Schuble said he was leaving to help renew the party, to restore its credibility with voters, and to allow it to function as a working opposition. "The crisis of the CDU cannot become a crisis of our democracy. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that the Union stays preserved as the large, integrating force of the center."
He was not exaggerating the stakes. The CDU is contesting its fine in court, but the penalty only deals with the party's financial report for 1998. If irregularities turn up in other years as well, the party could face ruinous fines as high as $200 million, or twice its total holdings.
At the same time, the CDU's political capital is also being used up. Everhard Holtmann, a political scientist at the University of Halle, says that Schuble's exit from politics comes too late to help the party recover in coming elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. Parliamentary deputies from both these states led the rebellion against Schuble.
"With the decision that Schuble forgoes his posts, the party gets some breathing room. But this change in personnel was long overdue," says Mr. Holtmann. But he adds that if the renewal turns out to be sincere, it could be a sort of "liberation" for a party that had been dominated by Kohl's long shadow until the scandal broke late last year.
"This is a first energetic step that many in the party have yearned for," says Holtmann. "It is not accompanied by halfhearted excuses."
After Kohl admitted to holding secret bank accounts in November, Schuble began to distance himself from his former boss and called for a complete investigation of the source of secret funds. A loyal Kohl follower, Schuble served as Kohl's chancellery and interior minister. He led the CDU parliamentary group since 1991 and took over the party leadership in 1998, when the Christian Democrats went into the opposition after losing to the Social Democrats under current Chancellor Gerhard Schrder.
While many CDU members initially placed hopes in Schuble to lead the party out of the crisis, a month he ago he was drawn into the whirlpool that has already sucked away the reputations of many other leading CDU politicians.
He made contradictory remarks about meeting Karlheinz Schreiber, an arms dealer who made a $50,000 contribution directly to Schuble in 1994.
When his story didn't match up with the CDU treasurers', calls for his resignation grew ever louder.
Next week, the CDU parliamentary group will elect its new leader. The favorite for the position is Friedrich Merz, a young CDU parliamentarian who brings no political ballast to the job.
At the CDU congress in April, two eastern German politicians are being considered to take over the party leadership: general secretary Angela Merkel or Bernhard Vogel, the premier of the state of Thuringia.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society