German Elections: Rocky road for 'coalition of losers'

IT WAS a night when both sides wanted to be winners. That was possible - but only because both were losers, too.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl was beaming when he appeared at Christian Democrat (CDU) headquarters in Bonn yesterday evening, with his wife Hannelore, to be greeted with enthusiastic cheers. A few minutes later, a smiling Rudolf Scharping, leader of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), appeared at its nearby headquarters with his wife Jutta - and he, too, was greeted with cheers. Partly, this was the SPD's attempt to put a brave face on defeat in the federal elections. After all, the CDU and its coalition partners kept their majority in parliament - and that, it could be argued, is all that matters.

None the less, Mr Kohl's position is much less rosy than he would like to suggest. He and his allies are stronger than the combined opposition by only a tiny handful of votes. His party's share of the vote is down, as is that of his coalition allies, who escaped electoral extinction by less than 2 per cent. This, said Mr Scharping last night, is 'a coalition of losers'.

Nor was that just sour- grapes rhetoric. Traditionally, governments in Bonn have not been directly voted out at election time. Instead, changes have taken place (from CDU to SPD, and from SPD to CDU) with shifts of balance within coalitions, and within the government. In that respect, Mr Kohl's tiny majority leaves the government vulnerable. The current opposition may, in future, have to be brought on board.

Mr Kohl was quick to emphasise the advantages of a small majority, saying: 'It's easier to keep discipline.' In reality, however, he will be under pressure on all sides. As the SPD was eager to point out, this is the Christian Democrats' worst result since 1949. More importantly, the SPD has increased its majority in the second parliamentary chamber, the Bundesrat - made up of representatives of the 16 states, or Lander.

The consensual system means parliamentary decisions need to be approved by the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. In the east German states of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and Thuringia, weakened CDU-led governments will probably have to form grand coalitions with the SPD after the disappearance in those two Lander yesterday of the FDP (assuming that the SPD does not join hands with the PDS to create SPD-led regional governments; Mr Scharping last night made it clear he will be keen to prevent such a collaboration).

The Bundestag-Bundesrat relationship means deals are constantly struck between government and opposition. Mr Kohl may come to be increasingly dependent on Mr Scharping's goodwill.

Asked last night about co- operation, the Chancellor and his SPD challenger were conciliatory. Mr Kohl said: 'Parliamentary battle is one thing - factual discussion is something else.' Asked if he was ready for a chat and a drink with Mr Kohl, Mr Scharping replied: 'If he offers a good red wine, why not?'