Kohl's man goes, but his troubles stay: German coalition partners may reject new presidential candidate

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CHANCELLOR Helmut Kohl's coalition showed few signs yesterday of emerging from its disarray, following the announcement on Thursday by Steffen Heitmann, Mr Kohl's anointed candidate, that he was withdrawing from next year's contest for the German presidency.

Mr Kohl's own determination not to drop Mr Heitmann, even when the overwhelming majority of the country was clearly opposed to his candidacy, has badly damaged the standing of the German leader in the lead-up to parliamentary elections next year.

Gunther Verheugen, a leading member of the opposition Social Democrats, has dubbed the crisis Kanzlerdammerung (twilight of the Chancellor). But Mr Kohl's advisers retorted yesterday that political obituaries of Mr Kohl were premature. One official said: 'Those who are pronounced dead live longest.'

Now, Mr Kohl and the Christian Democrats must try to pick up the pieces. It seems likely that the CDU will propose Roman Herzog, a senior judge with the constitutional court in Karlsruhe, as an alternative candidate. Theo Waigel, the Finance Minister and leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, indicated that his party was ready to support Mr Herzog.

The Free Democrats (FDP), junior coalition partners in the government, were still insisting yesterday on their right to remain loyal to their own candidate, Hildegard Hamm-Brucher. The FDP, whose preferred candidate, the former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher had refused to stand, had previously rejected Mr Heitmann outright. Mr Heitmann caused enormous controvery because of his suggestion that Germany's Nazi past should be 'put in its proper place'. Even now, Mr Kohl cannot be sure of FDP support for Mr Herzog. The Free Democrats might still vote for their own candidate, or for the candidate of the opposition Social Democrats, Johannes Rau, the prime minister of North Rhine- Westphalia.

The presidential contest, which culminates in a secret parliamentary ballot in May 1994, has been hotly debated because, unusually, it comes just a few months before federal parliamentary elections. Partly because of the secret ballot, the presidential election is not a strictly party-line affair: the president is expected to stay out of party politics. The current president, Richard von Weizsacker, is at least as popular with the Social Democrats as with the CDU.

But this time support for another party's candidate is seen as being a coded sign of readiness to jump politically into bed with another partner. The parties are wary of committing themselves in this way.

Mr Heitmann, a member of the CDU, yesterday repeated his suggestion that Richard Schroder, a respected east German Social Democrat, could become a consensus presidential candidate. Mr Kohl appeared to rule out this possibility, but Wolfgang Schauble, a senior figure in the CDU, supported the idea.

The suggestion has been met with less than lukewarm enthusiasm by the SPD, which last week overwhelmingly approved the candidacy of Mr Rau. If a CDU-SPD joint candidate is agreed, that would appear to give advance blessing for a coalition between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats next year.