Kohl reshuffle fails to dispel sense of decay

THE German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, yesterday announced a reshuffle of his cabinet - or at least a New Year political tidy-up. He did not introduce the long-promised structural shake-up, nor were any of the main cabinet ministers changed.

Mr Kohl confirmed that Gunter Rexrodt of the Free Democrats (FDP) would become Economics Minister, succeeding Jurgen Mollemann, who resigned earlier this month because of alleged nepotism and abuse of power. The ministers of Scientific Research and of Agriculture, Heinz Riesenhuber and Ignaz Kiechle, were replaced. The German Chancellor admitted that the long-advertised cabinet changes were far from dramatic. He emphasised that some key posts had already been changed within the past year, including the appointment of Klaus Kinkel as Foreign Minister and Volker Ruhe as Defence Minister.

The cabinet changes come against a background of political bickering in Bonn. There are arguments within the government coalition, between the CDU and its sister party, the CSU, on the one hand, and the FDP on the other. There is also cross-party sniping between the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and the government parties.

The coalition parties yesterday suspended their long discussions on the creation of a 'solidarity pact' - in effect, a plan to tighten the belts of West Germans a notch or two, in order to help ease the pain of eastern Germany's economic slump. Unsurprisingly, politicians in the west complain that the proposals, including cuts in social benefits, are too painful to push through; politicians in the east, on the other hand, complain that the changes are, as Kurt Biedenkopf, the CDU Prime Minister of Saxony, said yesterday, 'less than we had been promised' in terms of benefits to the east.

The Finance Minister, Theo Waigel, was due to announce the agreed proposals for the solidarity pact yesterday. But the announcement was cancelled at the last moment, after more internal disagreements remained unresolved.

To add to the general sense of chaos, there is a steady stream of allegations against ministers of all political parties. There is at least one new set of allegations every week, and sometimes two or three in a single day. The front cover of this week's Der Spiegel news magazine shows Germany's proud federal eagle as a squawking, featherless bird, under the headline: 'A republic gone to seed'.

Der Spiegel's contribution to the murk was a new set of allegations about Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD Prime Minister of the Saarland, and alleged contacts of his close associate, Reinhard Klimmt, with the underworld. There have also been heavy hints about 'nights of pleasure' at a Saarbrucken bar.

Mr Lafontaine can take comfort in the fact that he is far from alone in having his life raked over. An FDP minister, Irmgard Schwatzer, responsible for construction, was accused last week of misusing her authority, lending her name (and headed paper) to support a company. There were many calls for her resignation, until it turned out that politicians on all sides had committed sins of equivalent gravity, at which point the clamour subsided.

In the past few days there has even been a stir in connection with Germany's respected President, Richard von Weizsacker, with allegations that he sought the help of Erich Honecker, the former East German leader, for his daughter's doctorate.

Television news and newspaper front pages have been filled with these mini-affairs. None of the affairs has, however, caught the popular imagination. They have merely contributed to a sense of decay at the centre. This is heightened by a perception that the government cannot find a solution to any of the problems which have topped the agenda for months. These include how and whether the German army should become involved in international conflicts; what should be done about reforming asylum laws; and how to finance support for the east.

Fall in Germany's GDP, page 24