New Times, 28 August 1998

The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) has learned from bitter experience never to underestimate the powers of recovery of chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Since the liberal Free Democratic Party abandoned Helmut Schmidt’s SPD-led West German government in 1982 to become the junior partner in a coalition with Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, the Social Democrats have lost four general elections in a row to him. In three of those elections, moreover, the SPD lost after holding what seemed to be impregnable leads in mid-term opinion polls.

Will this time be different? Until recently, it seemed inconceivable that Kohl could win the general election on 27 September. In May, the polls showed the SPD, led by the business-friendly populist Gerhard Schröder, supported by some 43 per cent of voters, with the CDU-CSU on 35 per cent. Just about every pundit agreed that even Kohl’s campaigning virtuosity could not possibly close the gap.

Now, however, the crystal ball is cloudier. Polls published in August suggest that the SPD will take around 42 per cent of the vote, with the CDU-CSU between three and five percentage points behind. A quarter of voters are still undecided, and it is unclear from the polls which of the smaller parties – the FDP, the Greens, the former-communist Party of Democratic Socialism and the small parties of the far right – will clear the threshold to win seats in the Bundestag. In short, although Schröder is still the favourite to head the biggest party, Kohl appears to be catching up and there is everything to play for.

The most important reason for the revival of Kohl’s fortunes is Germany’s economic recovery this year, which has led to a sharp drop in unemployment from 4.8 million in January to 4.1 million today. But the chancellor has also been able to exploit controversy inside the SPD over Schröder’s choice as candidate finance minister, Jost Stollman, a millionaire businessman who is not a party member – controversy that Kohl claims shows the SPD remains at heart anti-business. In similar vein, he has made great play of the dangers of SPD tax increases and of the prospects of an SPD coalition with the Greens or the PDS.

Against this, the SPD has promised tax cuts and much more vigorous action to reduce unemployment, along with a reversal of the Kohl government’s unpopular cuts in pension and sickness benefit entitlements. On the vexed question of coalition, Schröder has made it clear that he wants nothing to do with the PDS but has otherwise kept his options open, merely hinting that he would prefer a ‘grand coalition’ with the CDU-CSU to a deal with the Greens.

Kohl has ruled out participation in a “grand coalition”, and so have most other leading figures in the CDU-CSU – the aim being to maximise centrist voters’ worries about the Greens. The gambit might just come off. But if it doesn’t, Kohl’s stance could ironically help bring on the outcome he says he doesn’t want by leaving the SPD with no option but a coalition with the Greens. Then again, the CDU-CSU might change its mind after the election.

All of which makes it hazardous in the extreme to predict the political complexion of the government that will be ruling Germany at the end of this year. Like most of the social democratic left in Europe, I’m hoping for an SPD-Green coalition, which would give the centre-left a predominance in the European Union that it has never enjoyed before. But I shall not be too surprised if my hopes are cruelly dashed.

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