King Kohl set to follow the Iron Chancellor

Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany delighted his supporters and wrong- footed his critics yesterday by disclosing on his 67th birthday that he intended to stand for re-election next year. "I believe the current situation requires that I do this," Mr Kohl said in a German television interview taped during his annual Easter slimming holiday in Austria.

His announcement suggests he may nourish hopes of becoming the longest- serving chancellor in German history, by breaking the record of 19 years and two months set by Bismarck 1871 from to 1890. To surpass that, Mr Kohl, who came to power in October 1982, would need to remain chancellor until December 2001.

He said he felt obliged to play a role in a momentous period for Germany that would include Nato's eastward expansion, further integration of the European Union and the launch of a single currency. EU officials privately applauded his announcement, saying his continued presence at the helm guaranteed Germany would remain the rock upon which monetary union would be built.

Mr Kohl is signalling he will pull out all the stops to ensure Germany qualifies for monetary union without fudging the Maastricht criteria. If Germany records a 1997 budget deficit significantly higher than the Maastricht limit of 3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, there is a serious risk the single currency would be delayed or never get off the ground.

With 4.7 million Germans unemployed, more than at any time since Hitler's assumption of power in 1933, economists are warning that Mr Kohl's government will have its work cut out to meet the target. However, by means of a mixture of spending cuts, tax incentives and welfare reforms, Mr Kohl aims to do exactly that.

One reason for his determination is that a higher deficit would probably strengthen the case of southern European countries to be part of the first wave of monetary union.

Mr Kohl suspects that if Italy, Spain and Portugal were all included in the first wave, German public opinion might revolt against the project on grounds that the euro would be weaker than the mark.

A second reason is that German failure to fulfil the Maastricht criteria might tempt Mr Kohl's Social Democrat (SPD) opponents into campaigning openly for a delay to the single currency. One potential SPD challenger to Mr Kohl next year, Gerhard Schroder, makes little secret that he thinks postponement may be better than sticking to the EU's scheduled launch date of January 1999.

While surveys show scepticism among voters about giving up the mark for the euro, Mr Kohl has long been convinced that, if he leads from the front, he can turn opinion around. He attaches such importance to making a success out of political and economic union that he has suggested the alternative facing Europe next century might be uncontrollable nationalism and war. Mr Kohl's most loyal Christian Democrat (CDU) supporters believe that, despite a recent slump in poll ratings, he will be the best candidate to lead the party to a fifth successive election victory. Yet his coalition government was rocked earlier this year by public factional disputes and by signs that younger CDU politicians were beginning to position themselves for a post-Kohl era.

Wolfgang Schauble, the CDU parliamentary leader and one of the Chancellor's closest political companions, took aback party stalwarts when he told an interviewer he wanted to succeed Mr Kohl. The wheelchair-bound Mr Schauble, who was shot by a mentally deranged person in 1990, responded to the question of whether a cripple could govern Germany with an emphatic "yes". However, after Mr Kohl's announcement yesterday, Mr Schauble was quick to rally behind his leader. "Germany needs a chancellor with authority and the ability to get things done. This is a good decision for Germany," he said.

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