Germany Thinks Pink

Stung at the polls, Kohl moves to co-opt the left

Suddenly, "Wunderkohl" looked like "Blunderkohl." When the architect of German unification smashed his rivals in national elections last December, he seemed well on the way to becoming the most powerful German leader since Konrad Adenauer. Then the bills for unity began to come due. Last week voters in Helmut Kohl's native Rhineland-Palatinate rejected his ruling Christian Democrats and installed a Social Democratic government for the first time since World War II. That gave the Social Democrats control of the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German Parliament, and control of regional governments in 10 of the 16 federal states. And while Kohl still commands a comfortable majority in the lower house, some within his party are worried about the trend. "Germany is turning red," grumbled one of the chancellor's critics. That was an overstatement. But there were clear hints of thinking pink.

One sign is the jeering that greets Kohl on his increasingly rare trips to the east; he has ventured there only twice since December. By contrast, his counterpart Bjorn Engholm, the Social Democrats' new chairman, visits the region regularly from his home in the Baltic port city of Lubeck. Acknowledging that the Social Democrats' "too sober" response to the unification issue damaged the party during the last election, Engholm intends to regain lost ground. The party's traditional base is among the kind of blue-collar voters most affected by the economic changes in the east. "We now have to be the ones who go where the concerns are," Engholm said.

The concerns are multiplying. Easterners bitterly recall Kohl's promise that no one would suffer from unification; last week Bonn won court approval to sack 800,000 east German civil servants. The government agency Treuhand, responsible for managing property of the defunct East German state, will close or sell some 8,000 uncompetitive firms. Unemployment in the east already tops 30 percent. In the west, meanwhile, voters are angry over the "unity tax" Kohl imposed in March after promising no new taxes would be needed to pay for the merger.

Kohl won't stand idly by as his party falters. Last week he proposed moving the German government from Bonn, in the Rhineland, to Berlin. (A Kohl aide dismissed suggestions the chancellor was punishing Rhinelanders for their vote, then added that they "got what they deserved.") The announcement had an important subtext, explains a chancellery aide: "It said, 'We care, we west Germans will do everything we can to help the east'." Kohl already has reined in government bean counters responsible for streamlining the eastern economy. Treuhand's new job is to save jobs. Unemployment benefits, due to expire in June, will be extended to the end of the year-and, undoubtedly, beyond. Subsidies are being cobbled together to keep east German farmers and coal miners going. Kohl's government is making investments that the private sector won't. "In the future, the state will play a much bigger role in the German economy," predicts Stephanie Wahl at Bonn's Institute for Social and Economic Research.

East Germans welcome such moves as they would an old friend. The "Ossies," conditioned by years of central planning, know socialism when they see it. Kohl's motives are clear: to undercut the Social Democrats by adopting their programs for the east as his own. That may be good politics--but is it good policy? Kohl's expedient lean to the left unsettles many west Germans. "Germany is not becoming less free-market, but it is becoming more socialist," says an aide to President Richard von Weiszacker. "Coming at such an important time," says Wahl, "it could change German society for generations."

Germany's Western allies are also watching nervously. Social Democratic control of the Bundesrat means that Kohl's government must increasingly compromise with the opposition, especially in foreign policy--a realm where the chancellor and Foreign Minister HansDietrich Genscher have long operated freely. In the past, Kohl has shared the American view that NATO must be preserved and continue to be led by the United States. But Germany's reinvigorated Social Democrats do not. Neither does Genscher. His Free Democratic Party, a partner in Kohl's governing coalition, fears Kohl's growing weakness and has begun exploring an alliance with the Socialists. All this suggests that Kohl may no longer be the stalwart supporter Washington had hoped. Kohl may have to tailor his foreign policy, like his domestic policy, to the prevailing leftward winds.