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Germany: Concern About The Future Of Helmut Kohl

Bonn, 10 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's governing party, the Christian Democrats, meet in Leipzig Monday to discuss how to win next year's elections in the face of voters concern about rising unemployment, the economy and political developments.

But away from the public debates in the offices and corridors there will also be private discussions about the future of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has been Chancellor since 1982 and has reigned for many years as the most important political leader in Europe. Some members of the CDU feel the Kohl era is drawing to a close and a start should be made on grooming a successor for him and also for other party veterans.

The debate about Kohl's future is of importance far beyond the borders of Germany. He is the leading advocate of closer political union within Europe and the replacement of national currencies with the international monetary unit, the Euro. More than any other European leader he has developed close ties with Russia's president Boris Yeltsin. At the same time he is one of the strongest advocates of drawing Central European countries into NATO and the European Union.

Despite his prestige and the respect for him personally, some feel that the present Government has lost its touch. In recent months the Government has suffered strong criticism on a number of political and economic issues, including its inability to stop rising unemployment which has now reached more than four million and its failure this summer to get its economic reforms through parliament. Some newspapers have suggested the CDU Government needs to be rejuvenated if it is to win next year's election.

Kohl and those closest to him show no signs of wanting to leave. But they are aware of the criticism and concerns about the party's chances in the election and want to stop it becoming a possible embarrassment at next week's congress. Some analysts believe this is why the party leadership has taken the unusual step of deciding that there will be no discussion at the congress over Kohl's decision to lead the CDU in the elections.

Kohl announced on April 3, in a television interview from his holiday home, that he would again stand as Chancellor in the elections. His decision was enthusiastically welcomed by the party leadership but Kohl himself said that "naturally" his decision would have to be approved by next week's party congress.

Yesterday the party's general secretary, Peter Hintze, announced that this would not happen. He said Kohl's decision to run for another term as Chancellor had been approved by the party leadership several months ago and that was enough. There was no need for it to be considered and approved by the 1,000 delegates to the party congress. Hintze declined any information about when this decision was reached or who made it. There has been no comment from Kohl himself.

But while the grounds for this surprise decision have not been disclosed, analysts believe good reasons for it have surfaced this week.

Earlier in the week the leader of the CDU's junior branch, the Jungen Union, said publicly that Kohl should consider stepping-down from his other post as party chairman. He has held the post since 1973.

The chief of the Jungen Union, Klaus Escher, suggested this could stimulate other party veterans to make way for younger people in the leadership. Escher did not say Kohl do so at next week's party congress but tactfully proposed that he should do so if the party wins next year's elections.

Escher's proposal won little public support. It was widely criticized by other senior members of the CDU and the party's secretary-general Peter Hintze that it was precisely the younger generation of politicians who benefited from Kohl's policies which offered them excellent chances for their own future. Newspaper commentators said there is no likelihood that next week's party congress will even consider the possibility of Kohl stepping-down as party chairman..

There have been other signs of internal discontent. In recent months other younger members of the party, particularly the CDU provincial chief in Lower Saxony, Christian Wolf, have publicly criticized the Government's handling of the economy and other problems. Kohl is not blamed directly but by implication the finger is pointed at him as Chancellor. Some of the younger members have said blunders by the present Government could cost them their political careers if voters turned against the party.

Kohl himself gives no sign of considering retirement. The Munich newspaper "Suddeutsche Zeitung" which carried a long interview with him this week said he appeared comfortable in the job. Kohl declined to even discuss a possible successor. The newspaper said a talk with him left the impression that Kohl wanted to remain as long as he had the strength within himself to do so.