The convention hall in the West German industrial city of Ludwigshafen was filled to capacity. On the walls hung campaign banners and posters in the national colors of red, black and gold. But the 4,500 people in the audience were surprisingly unenthusiastic.
Reviewing his government’s economic record,
Chancellor Helmut Kohl, 56, sounded more like a proud corporate executive at a stockholders’ meeting than a politician chasing votes.
When it was over, his followers applauded only briefly before grabbing their coats and hats to leave. It was the sort of lukewarm response that might worry a less seasoned political leader.
But Kohl had every reason to appear confident: most West German experts predicted that his conservative coalition would trounce the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Jan.
25 general election. Admitted SPD spokesman Eduard Heussen: “The
voters are saying that times are good, so don’t rock the boat.”
With a booming economy and an appeal to German nationalism and pride, Kohl’s governing coalition had a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls. Still, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Johannes Rau, 56, was running a vigorous campaign, warning that Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was attempting to “appeal to the right wing of our society” by implying that Germans should feel less guiltridden about the country’s Nazi past.
In the past three months Kohl has made several statements drawing a parallel between the crimes of the Nazis and human rights abuses by Sovietbloc regimes. Earlier this month Kohl told a rally in Dortmund that East German authorities were holding 2,000 political opponents in “prisons and concentration camps”—a term whose sinister overtones are still strong. Kohl has also compared Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s public relations talents with those of Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister.
In a less-publicized remark, the
chancellor likened the Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan last October to the 1938 Munich Agreement, in which Britain and France tried to ap-
pease Hitler by agreeing to his territorial demands on Czechoslovakia. To many observers, Kohl seemed to be equating Gorbachev and Hitler. Still, Rau’s aides concede that the chancellor’s choice of words will have little impact on the election. “For the pub-
lic, it’s certainly not a hot issue,” a senior SPD official said.
Indeed, for many voters the robust economy is the only issue that will count on election Sunday. When a vote
of nonconfidence in the Bundestag allowed Kohl to replace the SPD’s Helmut Schmidt as chancellor in 1982, consumer prices in West Germany were rising by six per cent annually. Last year prices actually declined by an average of 0.5 per cent, thanks to lower oil prices and the Kohl government’s tight fiscal policies. Meanwhile, the country’s trade surplus in 1986 was at least a staggering $74 billion, compared with $31 billion in 1983, and the gross national product expanded by 2.5 per cent last year, compared with 1.3 per cent in 1983. “People are grateful to Kohl for helping to engineer an economic recovery,” said Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, director of the Allensbach Institute, a leading West German polling organization. “It is as though all of the pessimism of the early 1980s just disappeared.”
One of Rau’s major problems has been to find ways of criticizing the government’s economic record without sounding overly pessimistic. The SPD candidate has taken aim at West Germany’s 8.9-per-cent unemployment rate. “Politicians who are not able to
manage the problem of joblessness can go to the devil,” Rau told a crowd of 2,000 last week. Still, many SPD supporters say that they doubt that carping at unemployment will win many votes. Said Hans-Werner Michael, a Rau campaign worker in Bonn: “Life is very good for most people right now, and I am afraid that they do not really care about people who lack jobs.”
Kohl’s only real worry as election day approaches appears to be the danger that he could actually be too successful for his own good. Since 1983 the CDU has governed in coalition with the smaller, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and, in the state of Bavaria, with its sister party, the right-wing Christian Social Union (CSU). Some analysts have predicted that the CDU and the CSU might be able to win enough seats between them to form an absolute majority without the FDP.
But privately, Kohl’s advisers say that they fear the prospect of a CDUCSU majority, pointing out that it would increase the power of the chancellor’s archrival, CSU leader Franz Josef Strauss. Nicknamed the Lion of Bavaria for his militant anti-Communist views, Strauss has recently embarrassed Kohl by openly calling for increased arms exports and a retreat from the détente policies of the 1970s. Said Peter Radunski, Kohl’s campaign manager: “In the long run it is easier for us to govern in a three-party coalition. Besides, deep in their hearts the German people are not comfortable with absolute majorities.” In fact, a poll released last week by the German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag showed that the combined CDU-CSU group would indeed fall short of a majority, with the backing of only 48.5 per cent of those polled. Another seven per cent supported the FDP. The Social Democrats had 36.5 per cent, and the antinuclear Green party, capitalizing on ecological fears raised by the recent chemical spill in the Rhine River, had seven per cent.
But for all their differences, Kohl and Strauss have one thing in common: the conviction that Germans have atoned enough for the sins of the Nazi era. Kohl, who was 15 when the war ended, makes frequent references to “the Fatherland” and has encouraged outward displays of patriotism, including the playing of the national anthem, Deutschlandleid. Said a 50year-old West German journalist: “For my generation, the anthem, the flag and Fatherland all had a negative connotation because of their association with dictatorship. But public attitudes are changing, and Kohl is riding that wave.”
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