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Germany: Future Government Image Remains Unclear

Munich, 28 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Social Democrats (SPD) have won the German election. But it is still unclear this morning what sort of Government will emerge.

The possibilities include a coalition with the left--leaning Greens environmental party or an agreement to form Grand Coalition with the losing Christian Democrats but without Helmut Kohl. And there is a chance that the PDS, the successor party to the East German communist party which did well in the election, may be offered some role.

The SPD leader Gerhard Schroeder, who will replace Kohl as Chancellor, refused early today to speculate on which option was the most likely. He told reporters that "all of them have certain problems, and we will discuss them in the coming weeks."

Commentators believe the negotiations will probably continue until late in October. Most expect Schroeder to name his Government early in November. Until then Kohl and his Government will continue in a caretaker role but will be unable to take any major decisions.

Schroeder's spokesman said preliminary negotiations with the Greens party might begin either today or tomorrow. The Greens spokesman, Jurgen Trittin, was confident early today that his party would be the SPD's coalition partner. Some commentators have already expressed doubts about how strong this coalition would be and whether it could form a stable majority in parliament. Together the two parties would have about 334 seats in the 656-seat parliament --- this would give them a majority of only six seats. Some analysts doubt whether it would survive differences between the Social Democrats and the sometimes radical Greens.

The Greens present several problems as a coalition partner. The party is divided between a pragmatic wing led by the party leader Joschka Fischer, whose ambition is to be foreign minister in the new Government and a radical wing which favors leftist policies unpopular with many Germans, such as the dissolution of NATO and a stiff restrictions on a German military role in crisis areas such as Kosovo.

Several commentators suggested that the Greens could be an unstable partner for a Social Democratic party determined to maintain Germany's traditional foreign policy, including strong support for NATO and a prominent German role in its activities. Fischer told television interviewers last night that his party was open to joining a coalition with the SPD. Fischer acknowledged there were what he called "several controversies" to be resolved but said he was confident that an acceptable common program could be worked out within a month.

The Social Democrats face other problems if they consider a so-called Grand Coalition with the beaten Christian Democrats. Kohl himself categorically rejected it in an interview early today, saying "the voters have fully and clearly decided for a red-green coalition." But Kohl is resigning as party leader after yesterday's defeat and he acknowledged that he will no longer have the final say when the CDU's post-election congress is held in about two weeks. Some other CDU leaders are believed to be more favorably-inclined to a Grand Coalition.

More important is the opposition from the CDU's sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which exists only in the province of Bavaria. CSU party chairman Theo Waigel, who was finance minister in Kohl's Government, has said repeatedly that the CSU will n-o-t enter a coalition with the Social Democrats under any circumstances. Most political analysts believe it unlikely that the CDU would turn its back on its sister party and negotiate with the Social Democrats without them.

The third factor in the new German political spectrum is the PDS, the successor party to the east German communist party. In the previous parliament it had too few deputies to have a serious role. But yesterday it crossed the all-important hurdle of winning five per cent of the votes overall and in the new parliament will have more status. It should have about 35 seats - an increase of five.

There is no suggestion that the PDS would be offered a role in the new Government but several commentators have raised the possibility of it giving support to the Government from outside. The leader of the party in Parliament, Gregor Gysi, left open whether it would do so but he did emphasize that the PDS had its own platform which differs from the Social Democrats in several aspects and would promote it vigorously.

The main goal of the PDS is to improve the economic and unemployment situation in eastern Germany. The PDS party chairman, Lothar Bisky, told journalists that the goal of the PDS was to form the Government in all five eastern German provinces. "We are on our way forward," he said.

A hint that the Social Democrats might be moving towards a different approach to the PDS came from Oscar Lafontaine, the SPD's party chairman. He told a television interviewer that the "hypocritical" attitude towards the PDS in traditional German politics should change but failed to explain what he meant.

The question being asked by many is why did the CDU lose by such a large margin. Most commentators had expected a head-to-head race but instead the Social Democrats won easily by six or seven per cent. The Christian Democrats lost about ten seats while the victorious Social Democrats added about 35.

Helmut Kohl declined to discuss what happened saying there was time to do that in the future. But a senior member of the party, Wolfgang Schauble, said he believed one of the causes was that many voters, particularly younger ones, simply wanted a change.

"The Kohl era lasted for 16 years," Schauble said. "Most of the young voters had never known any other Chancellor. They believed it was time for a change." Others agree that a generation change was a factor in Kohl's defeat. But most commentators believe the CDU defeat was a result of its inability to resolve the unemployment crisis, particularly in eastern Germany. Unemployment in the five eastern provinces is about 17 per cent and the CDU paid the price with heavy losses.

Another question raised by many commentators is whether voters were tired of Kohl as an individual and might have favored the CDU more with another leader. For personal reasons, Schauble declined to discuss this. Earlier this year many of the younger faction in the CDU tried to persuade Kohl to step down in favor of Schauble but without success.

The election was a personal disaster for Kohl. Not only did he lead his party into defeat after 16 years in power but he also lost his own seat in Ludwigshafen. However under the German system, politicians can also enter parliament on a party list and this is what Kohl will now do.