German Elections: Kohl shows brave face as majority is slashed to 10: Former Communists poll 17 and set their sights on the west - Far-right Republicans slump to 2

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The Independent Online
ON THE morning after the night before, the winners and losers of the elections in Germany yesterday licked their wounds, and tried to celebrate.

The ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) were glad to have taken first place; their junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP) were glad to have survived; the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) were glad to have improved their position, and hoped for greater victories yet to come; the Greens were delighted to have re-entered parliament, and thus to have become part of the political landscape (in 1990, the West German Greens failed to cross the 5 per cent hurdle).

The clearest winner, however, was the party that everybody else loves to hate - the successors to the East German Communists, the PDS. The clearest losers were the far-right Republicans - who regularly scored well over 5 per cent just two years ago, but who gained a humiliating 2 per cent on Sunday.

Helmut Kohl, the current and future German chancellor, was keen to emphasise that his coalition's 10-seat majority was sufficient. Quoting the former Social Democrat chancellor, Willy Brandt, he declared: 'A majority is a majority,' and said that such a majority was 'very capable of governing'.

At the beginning of this year Mr Kohl's chances looked slim. In recent weeks it had seemed possible that the FDP would fail to be returned to parliament at all. It squeezed back in, partly courtesy of votes from supporters of the CDU. But Mr Kohl's problems are by no means solved. Partly that is because of the continued weakness of the FDP.

Its 7 per cent share of the vote was enough to get it over the 5 per cent hurdle, which allowed it back into the federal parliament. Elsewhere, however, the party seems dead in the water.

In a string of regional elections the FDP has failed to be returned to parliament. The pattern was repeated on Sunday, when it fell below the 5 per cent hurdle in all three regional elections (in the west German state of Saarland, and in the east German states of Thuringia and Mecklenburg- West Pomerania). Already, in the words of one of the aides of Rudolf Scharping, the SPD leader, the FDP is beginning to seem like a party of virtual reality. The slim majority, too, is a problem. In Britain, a majority of 10, such as the CDU and FDP have in parliament, would scarcely affect stability.

The opposition would grumble, but nobody would question the government's ability to survive.

In Germany, however, things look different. The decentralised system means that power in Bonn and power in the regions are heavily interdependent.

It will be difficult for the FDP to portray itself as a serious national party, with responsibility, currently, for foreign affairs, economy, and justice, if it has no regional backbone.

In addition, the increased strength of the SPD in the second parliamentary chamber, the Bundesrat (made up of representatives of the 16 states, or Lander) will put further pressure on Mr Kohl's government, to compromise at every turn.

The failure of the FDP to be returned to the parliaments in Thuringia and Mecklenburg means that grand coalitions of Social and Christian Democrats are the most likely prospect there - unless the SPD decides to join hands with the PDS to form a government, which the arithmetic would allow, but which would embarrass the SPD leadership in Bonn.

The smaller Mr Kohl's Bundestag majority, the more difficult the other pressures will be to resist. It is unclear whether the existing coalition can survive for four years. Defections from within the ranks, or disputes within the coalition, could create enormous problems.

Mr Scharping's defeat may also have made things easier for him, in the short term, than if he had gained a few seats more. If the SPD and Greens, together with the PDS, had gained a majority, then Mr Scharping would have been forced to choose between co-operating with the PDS in order to unseat the chancellor in a parliamentary vote, on the one hand, and accepting the leadership of Mr Kohl, on the other.

Whichever choice he made, he would have been criticised, within the SPD.

Now, it is the crumbling coalition that will remain in the spotlight.

Winners, losers, page 14 Dollar dives, page 30 (Photographs and graphic omitted)