Leading Article: Germany's year at the polls

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The Independent Online
NOTHING is more important for Europe's future than a successful outcome to Germany's quest for an identity - with the possible exception of developments in Russia. With the launch at the weekend of two new political parties and yesterday's endorsement of the Christian Democratic candidate for the presidency, a defining year in German politics is under way. In all, there will be 19 elections: nine at the local level, seven at the state or Land level, an election for a new President in May, the European Parliament vote in June, and federal elections in the autumn, with October the likeliest month.

This year's elections, the first major test of public opinion since the post-unification federal elections of 1990, will show how that search is progressing. The events of the past few days are encouraging. The biggest danger is that in the prevailing state of disenchantment - with the old political order in western Germany and with the new, unhappy economic order in the former German Democratic Republic - parties of the far right such as the Republikaner will clear the 5 per cent hurdle and enter the Bundestag. The two new parties should divide that vote.

One is the so-called Statt (Instead Of) party, which last September in Hamburg appealed successfully enough to the disillusioned to win eight seats and become a coalition partner of the Social Democrats in that city state. It will now campaign nationwide and polls have suggested it could garner as much as 7 per cent of the vote.

The other new party is unequivocally right of centre. Called the Bund freier Burger (Association of Free Citizens), it is headed by Manfred Brunner, a leading opponent of the Maastricht treaty who is friendly with the Austrian nationalist Jorg Haider. His party may do well in the European Parliament elections on an anti-federal ticket, with keeping the German mark independent a central plank. The more such parties arise to divide the nationalist vote, the better for mainstream politicians.

The Christian Democrats and their sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, have meanwhile plugged the embarrassing gap left by the withdrawal of their former presidential candidate, the unconvincing east German theologian Steffen Heitmann. Their new choice, Roman Herzog, is the respected chairman of the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, a Bavarian but a Protestant. Although he may lack the warmth and human touch of the Social Democratic candidate, Johannes Rau, his prospects of winning are fair.

Given the proliferation of smaller parties and the slow emergence of the Social Democrats from years of internal dissension, the outcome of the crucial federal elections looks very open. The only certainty is that Chancellor Kohl will fare much worse in the east than he did in the post-unification euphoria of 1990. The national mood continues to be one of pessimism, with anxiety levels increased by events in Russia. Yet to outsiders, Germany seems to be grasping its huge problems one by one and, not without courage, slowly assuming its responsibilities as the dominant power in central Europe.