- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2000

BERLIN
The beginning was simple enough. Walter Leisler Kiep, a treasurer for Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for more than 20 years, admitted before Christmas that in 1991 he had received a cash-filled suitcase from an arms dealer in a Swiss parking lot. The bag was stuffed with DM 1 million ($520,000) a campaign contribution for the CDU, Mr. Kiep claimed. Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl denied all knowledge. The CDU knew nothing. Poor Mr. Kiep was suddenly under investigation for tax evasion. That was then.
Now things have become infinitely more involved. Last week, a top CDU accountant committed suicide. A former federal interior minister admitted that, while he was governor of the state of Hesse, the CDU party headquarters had moved illegally millions of marks into Swiss accounts. The CDU's current chief, Wolfgang Schaeuble, conceded, he too, had had received and moved illegal funds. And Helmut Kohl was forced to resign as honorary chairman of the CDU because he defiantly refuses to reveal the names of anonymous donors who gave him more than $1 million in illegal contributions in the 1990s.
What's happening in Germany? In less than two months, boring Protestant Germany is starting to look a little bit like Italy as the entire CDU leadership is becoming engulfed in the country's most serious political crisis since the Federal Republic's founding a half century ago. On Friday, a prominent state governor announced that some 4 million DM from unofficial funds were missing. More revelations are in the offing. Bribes, kickbacks and the like are nearly certain to be in the mix. For the Italians, this may be the stuff of everyday life, like bad trains or heavenly linguine. Here, though, the exposure of such a system is creating a real shock. The consequences, what's more, will be serious and far-reaching.
First, there's the former chancellor and his legacy. Mr. Kohl stood by President Reagan and the United States during the Euro-missile debate of the early 1980s. It was a critical point in the Cold War struggle and he kept Germany firmly embedded in the alliance. In 1990, Mr. Kohl unified his country, overcoming profound doubts in Europe, resistance in Moscow, and the testy ambivalence of the opposition Social Democrats in Germany.
Later still, he would prevail and outlast Margaret Thatcher in the debate over a single European currency. Mr. Kohl's strength was often his immense stamina. Nothing fancy. He'd stick to his position and then, "die Probleme aussitzen" (sit the problems out), as he liked to say. It won't work this time; though Mr. Kohl apparently believed that a network of secret accounts and undisclosed contributions were necessary to further the legitimate aims of his party. "The donors are respectable citizens of our country," Mr. Kohl insisted to a CDU gathering in Bremen last week. "It's a matter of holding to my word," he says, that keeps him from naming names.
Everyone knows Mr. Kohl ran the CDU with an iron, authoritarian grip. But putting the party and now his word above the rule of law is another matter. "Die Partei, die Partei, die hat immer Recht" (the Party, the Party, it is always right) this was supposed to be a slogan of the old East Germany. As a result of the stonewalling, the worst for Mr. Kohl may still be ahead. He could lose his seat in parliament, face jail time, even legal proceedings initiated by his CDU. In the end, his towering legacy as European statesman will be badly damaged. But when the dust settles this legacy will also likely endure, so significant were his accomplishments.
Can the same be said of Mr. Kohl's party? The immediate effect is disastrous. The SPD-led government of Gerhard Schroeder had been faltering, having lost a string of state and municipal elections last fall. The CDU was snapping back. The Christian Democrats established a 15 percent lead in the polls that has now entirely disappeared. What's more, the current generation of CDU leadership is now finished, even if Mr. Schaeuble and his colleagues wish to cling to fantasies that they can put this behind them. There's some good news in this. There are fresh faces in the CDU, bright, energetic, and able talent that will suddenly have a chance. If the small band of pro-market thinkers prevails it will be a blast of fresh air for the CDU, which always behaved as the country's second Social Democratic Party.
But there's another scenario. If the CDU falls into disarray, a real possibility as the crisis intensifies, there may be new space on the right of Germany's political landscape. The roots of German democracy are deep. But there are still enough right-wing populists in the country who can make plenty of trouble for the Berlin Republic at home and abroad. Is Austria's demagogue Joerg Haider waiting for an ally next door?

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