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Germany: Kohl Names Successor But Retirement Still Open

  • Roland Eggleston



Bonn, 16 October 1997(RFE/RL) -- After months of uncertainty German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has publicly named one of his closest aides as his chosen successor. However he gave no information about when he intends to retire. Commentators say it depends on the outcome of next year's elections.

Kohl's personal choice as the next leader of the Christian Democratic party (CDU) -- and as chancellor if the party continues to win elections -- is Wolfgang Schaeuble, the party official responsible for its day-to-day work in parliament. The 54-year-old Schaeuble is widely known as the "man in the wheelchair." He has been crippled after having been shot by a deranged woman in 1990.

Schaeuble has long been considered Kohl's favored candidate to replace him at the head of the CDU but Kohl himself never officially confirmed the speculation. The defense minister Volker Ruehe was also considered by many to be a possible candidate.

Kohl finally made his preference known at the end of the three-day CDU party congress in Leipzig where his own speeches were described by several commentators as "uninspiring" and some suggested he looked "old and tired."

But overall the congress was considered a personal success for Kohl because he beat back a challenge to his leadership from several delegates worried about the party's steep decline in opinion polls. In statements before the congress they blamed Kohl's leadership and called for a rejuvenation of the party. The challenge fizzled out at the congress itself when two young CDU leaders who had publicly expressed discontent with Kohl's leadership backed down and pledged loyalty.

To the surprise of many Kohl did not name his preferred successor at the congress itself but in an interview with a commercial television station after the final session. It is not the first time that Kohl has preferred television interviews to publicize important decisions. He did so in April when he announced that he would stand again as Chancellor in next year's elections.

Kohl gave no indication of his retirement plans. His statement about Schaeuble was almost casual : "I would like Wolfgang Schaeuble to be chancellor some day," he said. Asked when this might happen he said: "We will decide that later".

Kohl has made no secret of his desire to be Chancellor of Germany at the turn of the Millennium. There are several reasons for this. One, of course, is the simple glamour of being leader of the most powerful nation in Europe as it enters a new millennium. More soberly, Kohl sincerely believes that he is the only politicians in Europe with the drive and the determination to make European unity a reality.

Some important changes -- such as the proposed common European currency -- will be only in a fledgling stage in the year 2000 and he wants to be in power to push them through. In a revealing comment during his speech to the congress on Monday he said he personally wanted to make the drive to a united Europe "irreversible".

It is by no means certain that the 67-year-old Kohl will win the elections and continue his 15-year-long reign as Chancellor. All recent opinion polls have shown the Christian Democrats -- and Kohl himself -- slipping in public favor. A poll taken earlier this month showed that only 30 per cent of Germans want Kohl to be re-elected. Opinion polls show roughly 50 per cent support for the opposition Social Democrats and the Green environment party. Party officials said after the television interview that if Kohl does manage to win next year's elections he will stay for the whole legislative period -- that is, until the year 2004. Most commentators believe that if he loses the elections he will probably retire as party chairman. The party will then choose his successor -- which may or may not be Schaeuble. .

Schaeuble is by no means everybody's choice. Kohl's own finance minister Theo Waigel has made negative comments about some of Schaeuble's political ideas in which he barely conceals his distrust of Kohl's favorite.

However for the moment, Kohl has good reason to be satisfied. He has at least temporarily beaten back his critics by insisting on the need for units in the party if it is to have a chance of winning a tough campaign. And by naming Schaeuble as his favored successor he has indicated that he is at least thinking about retirement as those critics wish -- even if the date may be some time away.
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