Kohl claims victory by a short head: Defeated Scharping immediately raises prospect of 'coalition of losers'

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HELMUT KOHL yesterday claimed victory after his ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and their coalition allies narrowly survived as the largest bloc of parties in the German parliament.

However, the complexities of German coalition arithmetic mean that the long- term survival of the existing coalition is not guaranteed, despite its apparent election victory. The ruling alliance faces a cut in its majority from 134 in the last parliament to a possible 10 in the next.

Rudolf Scharping, leader of the opposition Social Democrats and challenger to Mr Kohl, promptly talked of a 'coalition of losers'. Leading Social Democrats began discussing a grand coalition of Social and Christian Democrats.

The CDU and the Free Democrats were expected to gain about 48 per cent of the vote. The Social Democrats and their likely coalition partners, the Greens, gained around 44 per cent - an improvement of 6 per cent on their performance in 1990, but 4 per cent behind the CDU and the FDP.

The government's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), had looked set to fall at the 5 per cent hurdle necessary to gain seats in parliament. But projections gave the FDP almost 7 per cent - 4 per cent down on 1990, but enough to guarantee them a place.

Meanwhile, the most obvious winners were the successor party to the East German Communists, the PDS, who won at least three directly elected seats in east Berlin and were expected to take a total of 29 seats in the federal parliament, the Bundestag. They gained around 17 per cent of the vote in the east, but 1 per cent in the west. Lothar Bisky, the PDS party leader, declared himself delighted. 'If we had said in 1990 that we would be returned to the Bundestag in 1994, we would have been laughed at.'

In an especially piquant twist, the upstart PDS will come directly into conflict with the establishment parties at the beginning of the parliamentary session. Traditionally, the oldest member of the new parliament makes the opening speech. In the new Bundestag, this will be Stefan Heym, the maverick 81-year- old writer who yesterday, on behalf of the PDS, defeated a leading Social Democrat, Wolfgang Thierse, in a head- to-head contest in east Berlin.

The government coalition is weakened, not just by its much smaller majority, but also by the fact that the FDP is now diminished nationwide. After a string of recent electoral disasters, the FDP again failed to be returned to parliament in three regional elections - in the west German state of Saarland and in the east German states of Thuringia and Mecklenburg- West Pomerania.

The SPD's hope for the longer term lies partly in the fact that governments in Bonn have traditionally been ousted not at election time, but between elections, when the wounded elephant is finally slain. Leading Social Democrats - including Gerhard Schroder, the second most powerful man in the SPD - talked of the prospect of a 'grand coalition' in the not too distant future.

In the past year opinion polls had veered wildly. Mr Kohl and the Christian Democrats were way behind at the beginning of the year. Then they gained a commanding lead, before it became clear in recent weeks that much would hang on the fate of the FDP and of the PDS.

Mr Kohl ran a campaign which tried to suggest that the PDS was still a straightforwardly Communist party, and that the party consists only of 'red-polished fascists'. Gregor Gysi, the PDS leader, yesterday described his party's performance as a 'historic achievement' in the face of opposition from an 'all-party front, unprecedented in the history of the Federal Republic'.

The results marked a clear improvement for the SPD on their dismal performance in the first united German elections in December 1990, when an apparent lack of enthusiasm for German unity cost them dear. In 1990, the CDU and their Bavarian sister party had 44 per cent of the vote, and the SPD 33 per cent. The east German Alliance 90 party and the west German Greens, now a single party, gained a combined 5 per cent: yesterday they took 7 per cent.

(Photograph and graph omitted) Communists return, page 10 Leading article, page 15