- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2000

Viewed from any angle, the German chancellor's new digs in the heart of Berlin tower over other buildings in the area. The concrete and glass structure into which Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder plans to move next year can even seem a bit larger than the famous Reichstag with its glass dome, the runaway tourist attraction where Germany's lawmakers now sit.

Like the new Chancellery, Mr. Schroeder's fortunate political situation is not really of his own making. But the veteran blue-collar back-slapper can also gracefully hobnob with corporate titans over a Cuban cigar, and oozes political savvy. He is riding high precisely because his opponents have been laid so low. And with his term only half over, most political observers in Germany believe he is already a cinch for re-election in 2002. For with these enemies, the German chancellor only barely needs friends.

Mr. Schroeder must surely smile broadly when he sees the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in action. They are still searching for the right message after a campaign finance scandal in which the architect of German unity in 1990, Helmut Kohl, admitted he illegally channeled money into political slush funds, and they refused to identify the sources of the cash. The CDU cannot fully throw off the Kohl albatross by forcing the former chancellor to resign from the party, because he would take a small army of party stalwarts with him. To boot, the CDU is financially strapped because it has to pay fines for Mr. Kohl's illegal activities.

Christian Democrats have also made a crucial mistake that was previously a hallmark of the Social Democrats: It has allowed competing power centers to take root within the party. In the wake of the scandal, former Family Minister Angela Merkel became head of the party, while the brash and ambitious Friedrich Merz became chairman of the Christian Democrats in parliament. And Edmund Stoiber, the provincial chief head of the CDU's sister party in Bavaria, is even mulling a shot at Mr. Schroeder. Three potential CDU candidates for chancellor has made for good headlines but bad politics. Everyone has something to say, but no one is in charge.

Mr. Schroeder, by contrast, has followed the example of Mr. Kohl, who was both chancellor and chairman of his party, making him the lone helmsman of the Social Democratic ship. As candidates go, only Mrs. Merkel, who is from eastern Germany, causes much consternation among Social Democrats. Campaigning against a woman from the East, where former East Germans still resent Western dominance, would test Mr. Schroeder's admittedly estimable skills. But Germany's economic recovery, still gaining steam, remains the Social Democrats' trump card.

In the shadow of the big two are Germany's smaller parties, each vexed in its own way. The Greens, Mr. Schroeder's coalition partner, have Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the country's most popular politician. But they also have Mr. Schroeder, who has mercilessly dragged the Greens along as he has governed, with little regard for their agenda. The signature Green issue, a phase-out of nuclear energy, will see the light of day only after a mind-boggling 30 years, thanks to Mr. Schroeder's foot-dragging. Green voters, many of whom are aging pacifists and environmentalists who cut their teeth on protest politics in the 1970s, will be gray or gone by then.

The Free Democrats, Germany's socially liberal free-marketeers, have been the traditional kingmakers in German politics, both before unification and after, having secured a parliamentary majority for all but two chancellors since 1945. But they cannot decide who they want at the top, the old-line Wolfgang Gerhardt or the young, charismatic Guido Westerwelle. And a wily provincial politician who was once a federal minister, Juergen Moellemann, has eagerly fed the rift, hoping it will bring him back to the seat of power. The divisive public debate has obscured the Free Democrats' laissez-faire message, a loss for Germany.

The Free Democrats might appeal to Mr. Schroeder as a coalition partner for the future, since he has tried to drag his own party in a more market-friendly direction. But the Greens, in the eyes of many observers, possess the single most important quality: They are obedient. Unless the Free Democrats score improbable knockouts in state elections before 2002, Mr. Schroeder will stick with the hapless Greens.

Regrettably, though, Mr. Schroeder has not spent his political capital to squelch a most unfortunate debate in Germany right now, the question of whether to ban the right-wing National Democratic Party. Racist attacks in other European countries regularly outnumber those in Germany, but the German constitution allows the government to ban openly anti-democratic parties.

The debate started earlier this year after a rash of racist attacks, and came to a head recently when the parliament approved the ban overwhelmingly. The discussion has been full of distasteful political maneuvering and inflammatory rhetoric. But it is essentially a convenient distraction from the need for better law enforcement and a building of public taboos, especially in eastern Germany, against xenophobia. A ban also fosters an artificial solidarity among rightists, and forces many of them into a shady underground where law enforcement cannot track them.

The danger lies in what might happen after the ban. Ever-cautious in tightening the screws on political expression, German politicians must submit the prohibition to a review at Germany's constitutional court, a potentially lengthy process. But if the court overturns the government's decision, the headlines would scream out across the Atlantic, where issues evoking Germany's past resonate loudly: "Germany's highest court OK's neo-Nazi party." The damage that would be done to Germany's image and room for maneuver abroad would be higher than any possible gain from getting rid of the NPD. It would be a sorry end to a sorry chapter. But the Germans, and especially Mr. Schroeder, would have only themselves to blame.

Carter Dougherty is an international trade reporter for The Washington Times.

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