Kinkel's party threatened with electoral extinction

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The Independent Online
Small party, loud voice. Increasingly, the forthright and controversial manner of the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, has reflected the intricacies of German election-year politics, rather than shed light on German foreign policy itself.

Mr Kinkel wears two hats - sometimes, uncomfortably, one on top of the other. He formulates the foreign policy of the most powerful member of the European Union; at the same time, he leads a party which faces humiliation at the polls, in October.

For 25 years, the Free Democrats (FDP), led by Mr Kinkel, have been the junior partner in the government coalition, working first with the Social Democrats and then with the Christian Democrats. Increasingly, the question is being asked whether 1994 may prove their last hurrah.

In two recent elections the FDP failed to cross the 5 per cent hurdle, which enables the party to gain seats. One recent front page headline asked: 'Is this the end of the FDP?' As Mr Kinkel points out, the FDP's obituary has been written many times.

One problem for the FDP is the loss of its best-known name. Hans- Dietrich Genscher, the Foreign Minister for almost 20 years, withdrew from active politics in 1992. He was one of the most popular politicians in Germany. Mr Kinkel is struggling to fill those shoes.

This has put him under pressure. In the words of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 'in seven months' time it will be clear how long he still has as minister. He knows the FDP is not just worried with its party leader, but also demands successes from him'.

Mr Kinkel's behaviour recently has raised eyebrows. After what were intended to be off-the-record remarks by the French ambassador to Bonn, regarding tensions in the Franco-German relationship, a furious Mr Kinkel announced he would 'summon' the ambassador. Even within the government coalition there were complaints of 'nineteenth-century-style diplomacy' at his abrupt reaction.

During negotiations on the terms of membership for new entrants to the European Union, Mr Kinkel allegedly told the Spanish he would 'break their backs' if they refused to compromise. This was later explained away as a 'mistranslation'.

This abruptness has raised Mr Kinkel's political profile - and that of his party. Until now, he insisted there would be no statement of the party's coalition intentions until September. This week, Mr Kinkel talked of an announcement 'in the foreseeable future' - probably at the FDP conference in June.

Arguably the FDP is stuck, whatever move it makes. It creates problems for itself if it states its preference between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats (it puts off floating voters unhappy with the proclaimed choice) and if it fails to do so (voters see the party as too wishy-washy).

In July, Germany takes the baton of the European Union presidency from Greece. Mr Kinkel must be resigned to the fact that he may not see the presidency through. According to one recent poll, even among FDP voters a quarter do not expect the party to make it into parliament in October.