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Germany: Kohl's Party Still A Long Way From Restoring Trust

Germany's scandal-ridden Christian Democrats have forced the resignation of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl as honorary chairman of the party. But correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich that the party remains a long way from settling the allegations of financial deceit that have cost both Kohl and the party the trust they long enjoyed.

Munich, 19 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The big news out of Tuesday's crisis meeting of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was the resignation of Helmut Kohl from his post as honorary chairman. It was a strong response to a decision by the party leadership that Kohl's position would be allowed to "rest" until he was ready to cooperate in resolving the financial scandal swamping the party.

Kohl has refused to reveal the names of donors whose money to the party went into a secret fund.

The departure of the man who was long honored as Europe's senior statesman and who was given much of the credit for the unification of Germany was personally painful for most of the leadership. Party officials say that in fact it could have been worse -- several of the younger members in the party leadership wanted to force Kohl to surrender his seat in the parliament. That would have been a greater humiliation.

But some of the other news from the CDU crisis meeting was almost as dramatic. The present party chairman, Wolfgang Schaeuble, admitted that he went to the crisis meeting determined to resign -- partly because he has himself been involved in a dubious donation to the party finances. Schaeuble stayed on only after the entire party presidium threatened to resign if he left.

Schaeuble won a vote of support from the party leadership. But almost all German commentators said today (Wednesday) that this was largely because there is no obvious successor to him. Older party veterans who could have taken the post on a temporary basis refused to do so because of the continuing financial scandal. Most commentators believe Schaeuble will have difficulty holding his post at the party congress scheduled for April.

Adding to the painful atmosphere was the new scandal over the millions of dollars illegally gathered by the CDU regional party organization in the province of Hesse. That led on Monday to the resignation from the federal parliament of Manfred Kanther, a former senior party official who later became interior minister in the Helmut Kohl government.

Kanther had a personal reputation as a very hard law-and-order minister who once proposed that anyone who committed two traffic offenses should be sent to jail. Kanther's departure was inevitable after he and some of his colleagues tried to explain the illegal funds by saying they had been donated by rich Jews living outside Germany. That was quickly proved to be untrue, although the real source of the funds remains a mystery.

Behind it all is the figure of Karlheinz Schreiber, a German arms dealer now living in Canada, who has provided many of the details that contributed to the original party financing scandal that implicated Kohl. German newspapers said last week that CDU politicians "live in fear" of Schreiber because of what he might disclose next. And as expected, today's (Wednesday's) newspapers have new reports from Schreiber.

This time, he is hinting that the CDU's sister party in the province of Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, may also have been involved in illegal methods of building party funds.

Meanwhile, German police have begun raiding CDU party offices and some private homes in Hesse seeking evidence of real crime. Until now, most of the alleged offenses have been violations of the law on funding political parties.

Political analysts in Germany say an impression has been created that a culture of financial deceit existed in the upper ranks of the CDU during Kohl's 16 years as party leader and German chancellor. They argue that the party will only regain the trust of the country with a sweeping change of leadership, an overhaul of party rules to ensure transparency in financing, and an honest admission of the mistakes that have been made.

Most commentators say it seems inevitable that Kohl will eventually be forced to give up his seat in parliament. One of the main benefits of remaining in parliament is that it gives him immunity from prosecution. But Kohl holds the seat at the party's pleasure. He did not win it directly from the voters. It was awarded to him by the party under the "party list" system.

Most of the issues involved in the scandal remain unresolved. Kohl refuses to name those who allegedly gave him the donations, which amount to 2.4 million German marks ($1.2 million). Some of his critics have suggested that the donors were not the "reputable German citizens" he claimed them to be. Some suggest Kohl may have been paid the money in return for political favors to industry, either German or foreign.

Questions remain over the more than one million marks which arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber passed to the then-CDU treasurer Walther Leisler Kiep in August 1991. That sum was described as a donation to the CDU. Many commentators have suggested it was a payment in return for the Kohl government's approval of the sale of tanks to Saudi Arabia in 1991 during the Gulf War. Kohl has denied this.

Shadows exist also over the 100,000 German marks (about $52,000) passed by Schreiber to the present party leader Wolfgang Schaeuble. The stories told by Schaeuble and Schreiber differ.

Later this week, a commission which has been investigating the party finances is expected to present a report. But the CDU's general-secretary, Angela Merkel, said Wednesday she doubts whether it would throw too much light on the dark shadows of party financing during the Kohl era.