Kohl fights the prophets of doom: The phrase 'twilight of the Chancellor' has become a buzzword as troubles mount for Germany's leader

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The Independent Online
A LEADING member of the opposition Social Democrats coined the phrase, after Chancellor Helmut Kohl's favourite candidate to be German president was recently forced to stand down in humiliating circumstances. Since then, it has quickly become a buzzword. Kanzlerdammerung or 'twilight of the Chancellor' - sometimes seen as a self-evident truth, sometimes a subject for speculation and sometimes loyally denied - is everywhere.

Leading articles, soundbites, and television debates on Kanzlerdammerung have poured forth, even as Mr Kohl's woes continue. This week's Der Spiegel - Germany's most influential magazine, and the one that Mr Kohl swears he never reads - headlined its cover story 'The End of an Era', and simply showed the back of Mr Kohl's head.

Certainly, there are reasons a-plenty to suggest that Mr Kohl's days may be numbered. In recent weeks alone there has been the resignation of the presidential hopeful Steffen Heitmann over his clumsy right-wing remarks. Then came the resignation of the Christian Democrat (CDU) prime minister and a clutch of other ministers in the east German regional state of Saxony-Anhalt. The ministers (west German imports) were accused of corruptly bumping up their own salaries. The scandal contributed to the already widespread disillusion with the political establishment in general and the CDU in particular.

Then, hard on the heels of the Saxony-Anhalt debacle, came the local elections in the east German state of Brandenburg. The results of Sunday's poll can be highlighted in different ways: there was success for the opposition Social Democrats who, with 34 per cent, gained by far the largest number of votes; and there was success for the PDS, the post-Communist party which persuaded a remarkable 21 per cent of voters that it is the 'voice of the little man' in the east. Undeniably, however, the results marked a catastrophe for the CDU, which was squeezed by the ex-Communists into third place.

Just three years ago things were very different for Mr Kohl and his party. Mr Kohl seized the historic opportunity to go for German unity at a time when others were hesitant and confused. He transformed the chanted expectations of east Germans - 'We are one people]' - into reality and gained enormous popularity as a result.

But Mr Kohl's talk of 'blooming landscapes' to be created in the east backfired badly as unemployment soared. West Germans, too, have felt the pinch, hit by recession and by the hundreds of billions of Deutschmarks that have been funnelled into the east. By now, less than a year away from new parliamentary elections, few have a good word to say for Mr Kohl.

The CDU-friendly Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung talks of 'a mood within the CDU that the end has been reached' and of 'thinking the unthinkable': in other words, the possibility that Mr Kohl might be thrown to the wolves. Mr Kohl, the paper argued, has been badly weakened 'even if nobody in the party mentions the fact', and added: 'With every day that goes by the situation gets worse.' The conservative weekly Rheinischer Merkur, too, spoke in its main front-page headline of a 'Storm warning for the Chancellor', and talked of potential 'catastrophe' ahead.

Already, Germany is beginning to look towards the long, election-packed year ahead: presidential elections, European elections, a clutch of regional elections and - at year-end - federal parliamentary elections. Any hint of bad news for the CDU (and there is likely to be no shortage throughout next year) will be even worse news for Mr Kohl himself.

The mood within the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) has improved as the party starts to believe that it has a chance of taking power at last, after 12 years in the wilderness. The new SPD leader, Rudolf Scharping - initially portrayed by the cartoonists as a pygmy, beside the towering Mr Kohl - is now seen by many Christian Democrats as an alarmingly serious challenger.

Mr Kohl's defenders argue that he has won unwinnable battles before. Indeed, his advisers say that the Chancellor already has a substantial collection of Spiegel headlines from past years, each announcing Mr Kohl's imminent demise.

But even if the CDU hopes for a similar recovery in its fortunes, the comparison with Britain still leaves Mr Kohl in danger. The Conservative Party had, after all, knifed its own adored leader to improve its chances in elections. Mr Kohl - who has a reputation for being even more brutal with his potential rivals than Margaret Thatcher used to be - will be keen to ensure that history is not repeated in that respect at least.