Weight of woes widens cracks in Kohl's coalition

Chancellor no longer seems to be in control of events, reports Imre Karacs
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Bonn - Germany's conservative government has lost its way. After 13 years in power Helmut Kohl's coalition is wobbling under the weight of a near-stagnant economy, fratricide within the three-party alliance, and powerful onslaughts from an ever more confident opposition.

Only weeks ago the biggest question in German politics was whether Chancellor Kohl would engineer early elections in order to pad out his wafer-thin majority in parliament. Now senior conservative politicians are wondering aloud if the government will be able to last out the year. Though the Chancellor's mandate does not expire until 1998, he no longer seems to be in control of events.

Turmoil among the Free Democrats, whose 47 MPs keep Mr Kohl in power, poses the most immediate threat. The FDP is increasingly seen as irrelevant, supplanted in its traditional role as the "third force" in national politics by the youthful Greens. In the last two years the party has lost all its seats in 12 out of Germany's 16 Lander, and is facing extinction in three more regional elections in March. According to the latest polls it would be wiped out nationally if elections were held now.

Attempts at damage limitation have merely aggravated its plight. Petty power struggles have burst into the open, souring relations with the fast- shrinking membership. A vocal right wing, trying to push the party towards the nationalist agenda pursued by Jorg Haider's Freedom Party - the FDP's sister-organisation in Austria - is alienating liberals. And a sudden lurch towards Thatcherite economic policies is sowing the seeds of revolt within the government, promising a head-on confrontation with Mr Kohl.

Among the numerous scenarios for a government crisis, an FDP rebellion over next year's budget is the most likely. The party's leadership demands a cut in the so-called "solidarity surcharge", a 7.5 per cent levy on income tax that goes to pay for the rebuilding of eastern Germany. Already three MPs have indicated that they will vote against the budget as it stands in the debate in the autumn. A fourth, Jurgen Mollemann, a former economics minister, yesterday threatened to set up a breakaway liberal party. The defection of six MPs would bring down the government.

The Free Democrats might be forced to pull out even before that. On 26 March elections are being held in the states of Schleswig-Holstein, Rhineland- Palatinate and Baden-Wurttemberg. If the party fails to clear the 5 per cent hurdle for entry into those legislatures, it would be represented in only one regional parliament. That situation would challenge the right of the FDP to be part of the national government. Polls have the party hovering at 5 per cent in all three states.

In some ways early elections would suit Mr Kohl. His top priority remains European monetary union, but the crucial Bundestag vote early in 1998 approving the credentials of participating countries has always seemed a hostage to government fortunes. The slim majority for this is also threatened by defections, this time from the ranks of the two conservative parties in the coalition, Mr Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Socialist Union led by the finance minister, Theo Waigel. Opposition to the abolition of the Deutschmark is particularly strong in Mr Waigel's party.

The Chancellor is also acutely aware of the slow but steady rise in the fortunes of the main opposition party, the Social Democrats. For the first time in two years, the polls predict a majority for a Social Democrat- Green coalition, assuming that the Free Democrats fail to get their 5 per cent.

Mr Kohl's personal popularity is also declining sharply - by 10 points in the last three months - and now has a lower rating than the SPD's rising star, Gerhard Schroder, who talks the sort of sensible right-wing economic policies which German voters like to hear. Mr Schroder, the 52-year-old prime minister of the northern industrial state of Lower Saxony, is a leading Euro-sceptic, proposing to renegotiate the Maastricht treaty and to postpone monetary union beyond the turn of the century.

Less than three months after replacing its lacklustre leader, Rudolf Scharping, with Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD is still rebuilding. The longer it has to groom Mr Schroder for the title fight against Mr Kohl, the stronger it will become.