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Europe: Germany's Kohl Considers His Political Future

Munich, 19 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Officially, Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl is considering whether to run again in next year's federal elections. Unofficially, party officials in Bonn say there is no doubt he will do so, barring a major upset.

Political officials close to Kohl have told German newspapers that a decision could be made as early as April, after Kohl's traditional spring vacation. RFE/RL's correspondent in Munich reports others believe Kohl will wait until after the government's controversial economic packages finally win parliamentary approval.

Kohl himself told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" that he is "determined to meet my duties and obligations." Our correspondent reports this is widely considered to be a statement of Kohl's intention to run again. The newspaper headline on Kohl's front-page interview was: "Kohl wants to continue as Chancellor."

Kohl's decision is of importance to Russia and Eastern Europe.

Under Kohl, Germany has made tremendous efforts to build bridges to Moscow, and poured taxpayers' money into Russia's economy. German banks and other sources of investment have been urged to put their money into Russia. And, Kohl has had a number of private talks with President Boris Yeltsin, and personally believes a friendship has developed between them.

Kohl has also encouraged German investment in Eastern Europe, concentrating much of his attention on Hungary. Experts consider Hungary's 1989 decision to allow East Germans in Budapest to leave the country and go to West Germany to be an important factor in the eventual collapse of the East German regime. But Kohl's Germany has also pressed for better relations with other East European countries, and he personally is a staunch advocate of the entry of some of them into NATO and the European Union.

Kohl has been chancellor since 1982, and for most of that time has held the country and the party firmly under control, despite some ups and downs. There was never a serious challenger to Kohl within his Christian Democrat party. Our correspondent says Kohl's fatherly manner and apparent friendliness to all has helped him win strong support. But, Germany is now enduring serious economic problems. The cost of operating in Germany is too high for many firms. Not only has foreign investment been on the decline, but even German companies are moving some operations out of the country. German airline Lufthansa, for instance, does its bookkeeping in India because it is cheaper. The electronics giant Siemens announced a few days ago it would be cutting jobs in Germany, but adding personnel in foreign countries.

RFE/RL's correspondent reports the Government places the blame for Germany's deteriorating economy largely on the country's generous social security system and says it has to cut back heavily. Under Kohl, pensions were cut and taxed, health benefits reduced and citizens must work longer before taking retirement. The government has also proposed tax reductions and other measures to persuade companies to invest in Germany, but critics say they provide few benefits for the ordinary voter.

It is against this background that questions are being asked about Kohl's plans and whether he will lead his party's campaign again next year. His Christian Democrat party has left him no doubt that they want him to run. Our correspondent reports many government politicians believe that the CDU can only continue if Kohl leads it in next year's election campaign.

But critics within the Party are coming to the surface. A month ago a group of provincial CDU officials criticized CDU's handling of the country's situation. The provincial officials implied wrongdoing on Kohl's behalf. Kohl was not called on to step down, but to the astonishment of German political experts, the group ignored Kohl's order to cease their criticism. Experts say it is part of Kohl's management style not to shed light on internal party complaints in order to build an impression of party solidarity.

RFE/RL's correspondent reports Kohl is also under fire for his single-minded drive to introduce the euro, a single monetary unit replacing the German mark, the French franc, the Dutch guilder and other currencies. If introduced it would also eventually replace the Hungarian forint, the Polish zloty and the Czech kronor, when these countries join the European Union.

For Kohl, the introduction of the Euro is a step towards his greater goal. He envisions European political union under which most aspects of individual sovereignty would eventually slip away and Europe will become a single entity like the United States.

The German press says many Germans do not want to replace the German mark with the Euro. Many fear that the introduction of the Euro could lead to an effective devaluation of Germany's economic position. But experts suggest these exact doubts are prompting Kohl to continue as German chancellor. A number of reports have said he believes the drive towards European unity will not succeed without his input.

RFE/RL's correspondent reports some CDU officials appear to back Kohl's opinions. Several of Kohl's supporters have referred to him as the "only European statesman." Others compare Kohl's drive to unite Europe to Bismark's unification of Germany. But, if the economic situation in Germany worsens and Kohl no longer retains popularity, possible successors are already lining up in the wings.

Sources say Kohl's personal favorite is Wolfgang Schaeuble, his long-time political lieutenant. At 54, Schaeuble would probably win the support of the CDU's more youthful supporters, who want rejuvenation of the leadership But Schaeuble was shot in 1990 and is now confined to a wheelchair. Some political experts doubt whether the German people are ready to elect a disabled Chancellor. There is speculation that even if Kohl does decide to run next year he will step-down after the turn-of-the-century celebrations and turn the post over to Schaeuble, giving him two years to show that he can indeed run the country from a wheelchair.

Our correspondent reports another possible candidate for Chancellor, if Kohl does not run, is Defense Minister Volker Ruehe. But Ruehe has had many disputes with the Foreign and Finance Ministries over military equipment and operations. However, the former English teacher won considerable credit for persuading Germany that its troops could be sent on missions abroad - something which had been taboo since the end of the war.

A third possibility is Edmund Stoiber, the premier of the province of Bavaria. But Stoiber's openly-expressed ambitions have led to frequent clashes with his fellow-Bavarian Theo Waigel, the Federal Finance Minister. In defiance of the traditions of political solidarity, Stoiber has openly criticized EU monetary union. Experts say that in a race for the Chancellery, Stoiber would have the support of the Bavarian branch of the governing party, but he might have difficulty finding much support elsewhere.