German Federal Elections: Fringe parties hold key for Kohl: Opposition hopes of victory hang on thirst for a new face at the top

THE ELECTION posters of Germany's opposition Social Democrats concentrated until recently on the traditional issues - jobs, pensions, housing. In the campaign's final phase, however, the posters contain one essential message. 'Kanzlerwechsel,' says the poster showing the Social Democrat leader, Rudolf Scharping, meaning 'Change of Chancellor'.

Helmut Kohl has occupied the chancellor's office for 12 years. Many times, his chances have been written off. Every time, he has returned to win. Mr Scharping hopes that this time he may at last be the one to slay the dragon.

Germany votes on Sunday in the first elections to the federal parliament since the 'unity elections' of December 1990. The vote will partly be a judgement on the success or failure of German unity. Partly, it will be a judgement on the entire Kohl era. Have German voters had enough of Mr Kohl? Or are they so worried by the prospect of change, and so unimpressed by Mr Scharping, that they will stick with what they have for the next four years?

At the end of last year Mr Kohl was written off by most German commentators as a political corpse. The economy was in trouble, Mr Kohl was unpopular, and Mr Scharping, the Social Democrats' newly elected leader, was enjoying a media and voters' honeymoon. But, as one of Mr Kohl's advisers noted then: 'Those who are pronounced dead live longer.'

Certainly, Mr Kohl has emerged from intensive care. By contrast, Mr Scharping, who early in the year told reporters that he was beginning to feel 'at home' in the chancellor's office, has recently suffered embarrassing defeats, and won only minor compensating victories.

An extraordinary amount hangs on the smaller parties - particularly Mr Kohl's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, and the post- Communist PDS. As described below, a small swing could mean the life or death of the minority parties, and, by extension, of the government itself. If the Free Democrats survive and the PDS does not, or if the PDS survives and the Free Democrats do not, then the knock-on effect could be decisive.

Polls suggest the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, have more votes than the Social Democrats. Together with the Free Democrats, they could gain more votes than the Social Democrats and their likely coalition partners, the Greens, combined. But if the Free Democrats are not returned to parliament, things begin to look much shakier for Mr Kohl.

In addition, if the PDS is returned, the anti-Kohl forces could easily be stronger than the Christian Democrats and the CSU - even if the Social Democrats' performance is relatively weak. Thus, one typical opinion poll last week gave 46 per cent to the Christian Democrats and the CSU, 44 per cent to the Social Democrats and Greens combined, and a possibly decisive 3 per cent to the PDS. The PDS, unlike the Free Democrats, may gain seats even if the party fails to cross the 5 per cent barrier (see story below).

This opens up the possibility of the 'Saxony-Anhalt option' in Bonn. In elections in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt earlier this year, the Social Democrats and Greens had fewer seats than the ruling Christian Democrats. But, thanks to the PDS, which held the balance, the Social Democrats were able to elect a Social Democrat prime minister from their own party and to oust the incumbent Christian Democrat.

Briefly, the Social Democrats rejoiced. But Mr Kohl soon harnessed this solution as potent propaganda against the Social Democrats. He constantly suggests that the Social Democrats are ready to take power in Bonn with the help of 'extremists'. This rhetoric has little impact in the east, but it was not intended for the east. It was targeted, in the words of one Christian Democrat official, at 'conservative Social Democrat voters in the west, who may have voted Social Democrat for 20 years but are scared by the prospect of anything to do with the Communists'.

Mr Scharping denies he would repeat the Saxony-Anhalt option in Bonn. His only alternative might be to accept junior partnership in a grand coalition of Christian and Social Democrats. In such a grand coalition, Germany would have a Foreign Minister Scharping, instead of a Chancellor Scharping - a second best for the Social Democrats, which not all would be happy to accept.

Critics of a grand coalition, that Germany had in the late 1960s, suggest that the lack of a mainstream opposition can encourage the extremist fringe parties. Others suggest that it would lead to political stagnation. Defenders of a grand coalition, by contrast, argue that it makes the adoption of difficult decisions possible, without the party political yah-boo element.

(Photographs and Graphic omitted)