Rivals scent blood as `Kohl system' fails

The power struggle within the German government was suspended for a few hours yesterday as Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his ministers closed ranks in the face of an opposition challenge. But even as Mr Kohl was defending his record during an emergency parliamentary debate, factional battles inside the ruling coalition raged on.

The infighting is waged on many fronts by a bewildering array of protagonists, but there is no doubt about the prize. Mr Kohl's party senses that after 14 years at the top the old man is running out of steam, prompting ambitious men and women to get their retaliation in first. Mud is being slung in all directions, employing newspapers allied with the different factions. "The Kohl system has broken down," revealed an anonymous Christian Democrat bigwig to the Suddeutsche Zeitung.

The "Kohl system", a form of paternalism in which opponents were paid off for the sake of party unity, relied on the assumption that the Chancellor always knew best. It worked for 14 years but functions no longer because he has lost the aura of invincibility. Though elections are not due for a year, he will be limping towards the home stretch for the rest of his tenure, having botched the two vote-winning programmes that had been destined to return him to power. The overhaul of the tax system, unveiled last month, is a disaster. A week later, the cabinet gave birth to another mouse: a pension reform which will not reform them much before 2030.

At the same time, Mr Kohl's pledge to halve unemployment by 2000 has turned into a joke. The number that needs to be halved has gone up by 500,000 since he made his promise a year ago. Post-war records will tumble again this year, and nobody can see where the new jobs will be created by a government bent on pursuing deflationary policies in order to meet the Maastricht criteria.

The party grassroots and regional grandees are clamouring for a change of direction.

The crisis has the air of the end of the Thatcher era, except that in Germany the grenades being lobbed into Mr Kohl's office are mainly from the right.

In yesterday's debate, the Chancellor reiterated his aim of merely reforming the welfare state, seemingly oblivious to calls from his own ranks for a radical overhaul. His Finance Minister, Theo Waigel, read the party mood better, pointedly praising the employment record of Britain and the US.

But Mr Waigel himself is under pressure from his right-wing constituency in Bavaria to drift further in their direction, while coming under attack from his leftist cabinet colleague, Norbert Blum, the Labour Minister. Mr Blum voted against the Finance Minister's tax reforms, so the right torpedoed Mr Blum's pension plans. Meanwhile, the hard-right shot down the Waigel blueprint.

Confused? - so is Chancellor Kohl, who used to have a capable right-hand man to sort out this kind of mess.

But his trusted aide and anointed successor, Wolfgang Schauble, does not appear to be pulling his weight any more.

This may have something to do with an interview at the beginning of the year, when Mr Schauble broke a taboo by announcing his intention to succeed his master.

"Can a cripple become Chancellor?" ran the question on the magazine's cover, below a picture of Mr Schauble in a wheelchair. Germany's number two was paralysed from the waist down in an attack a few years ago. His answer to the question was an emphatic "yes", and since then bets on Helmut Kohl's record-breaking longevity are off.