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Germany: Country Debates Kohls Future

Bonn, 24 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- German politicians and newspapers have opened a new debate on whether Chancellor Helmut Kohl should step aside and allow another conservative candidate to fight the election in September.

The 67-year-Kohl has been chancellor since 1982 and for most of that time has held his Christian Democratic Party and the country firmly under control. He is widely considered the driving force behind the move towards European Union and is sometimes called the powerhouse of Europe.

But some prominent officials within his own party, backed by a few ambitious young politicians who want to move up the ladder, feel that Kohl and his team have been in office too long and don't have the policies to fight the global challenges facing industry and business and reverse Germanys massive unemployment.

Criticism of Kohl within his own party has been growing over the past year. But the campaign has intensified since the opposition Social Democrats chose the energetic, business-oriented Gerhard Schroeder as their chancellor candidate for the September 27 election. Opinion polls indicate that many Germans believe Schroeder, 15 years younger than Kohl, might be a better choice to meet the challenges facing the nation. Kohl's critics inside the CDU take these polls as a warning which the party should not ignore.

One of the most prominent is a former chairman of Kohl's Christian Democrats, Rainer Barzel. He made headlines a few days ago by declaring that Christian Democrats should be polled to determine whether Kohl was still the best candidate to carry the party's banner into theelection on September 27.

People are insecure, Barzel said. In his words: "The chancellor should ask for a vote of confidence. It could show leadership and confidence."

Some other Christian Democrats have suggested that Kohl should step down as Chancellor-candidate in favor of Wolfgang Schaeuble, whom Kohl named last October as his chosen successor. The 54-year-old Schaeuble is the leader of the parliamentary faction of the party. He is bound to an armchair after an assassination attempt in 1990 but this does not appear to be a handicap to his appeal. His political skills are highly-regarded across the country.

Other CDU officials have proposed that Kohl should declare now that even if he wins the election he will step aside and hand over the reins of power to Schaeuble no later than the year 2000.

Among those offering this idea is Tyll Necker, vice president of the German association of industry, which generally supports the Christian Democrats and has said it is reluctant to see the Social Democrats leading the government at this critical time for German industry and business. Necker proposed in a radio interview that Schaeuble and Kohl should campaign jointly and that Kohl should announce he would retire by the year 2000. As Necker put it: "The CDU should start the new millenium with a new leader."

Some have suggested that Kohl's 68th birthday next month (April 3) would be an ideal opportunity for him to announce that he would step aside.

Schaeuble himself has given no indication that he shares these views. He presents himself as a loyal aide with no ambition to topple his leader. He told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung at the weekend that Kohl would win the elections in September and remain in power until 2002 in a full four-year term. Schaeuble made clear that he was not part of any conspiracy to remove Kohl.

For his part, Kohl apparently has no doubts about his candidacy. He has said many times he wants to stay in power to ensure that the move towards European unification continues and is made irreversible. He has made it clear that even after he steps aside as chancellor, he expects to retain an important role as an elder statesman.

Apart from this conception of his personal importance in the drive to European unity, Kohl has another reason for wanting to stay in power. If he remains head of Government until 2002, he would break Otto von Bismarck's record as Germanys longest-serving leader.

But in the last week Kohl has learned that even political icons can tumble. In a backroom coup, the Social Democrat premier of the province of North Rhine-Westfalia, Johannes Rau, was compelled to say he would step aside by June this year. Like Kohl, Rau was one of the rocks of German politics and a guiding figure in the SPD. He had wanted to remain party leader until September when he would have been in power for 20 years. But junior officials wanting to put a younger man in charge before the September federal elections insisted that he go.

Rau left with his usual good grace but made clear he was not happy. Kohl's comment was that Rau's removal wasn't a surprise. Some commentators believe he might have been pondering his own position.