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Germany: centrist stability

WEST GERMAN voters demonstrated an unsurprising unwillingness to argue with success in Sunday's elections. They returned Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his conservative-liberal coalition to office, as expected, albeit by slenderer margins than were predicted. It was, on balance, a triumph for centrist stability - even though the biggest electoral gains were posted by the pro-environmental, anti-NATO Greens. They won 8.3 percent of the vote, up from 5.6 percent in 1983; this should not be surprising in an election coming less than a year after the Chernobyl disaster and the toxic spill into the Rhine.

Despite the emotional resonance of such events, German elections tend to be decided on economic issues. This vote was basically an endorsement of policies that have led to steady though unspectacular growth over four years under Mr. Kohl.

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The other winning party, relatively speaking, was Kohl's coalition partner, the Free Democrats (liberals). Not so long ago, there was concern that their strength could vanish into a mere asterisk, and that the Greens would become Germany's third party. But this time the liberals won 9.1 percent of the vote, up from 7 percent in 1983, and so Hans-Dietrich Genscher, whose tenure as foreign minister predates even the current coalition, looks likely to keep his job awhile yet. This is a vote for staying the course on foreign policy - which has included active pursuit of relations with the East bloc.

Kohl no doubt faces challenges ahead; his Christian Democrats made their worst showing since 1949.

The Social Democrats (SPD), though, are the party whose course is most in doubt at this point. Johannes Rau, their personally popular standard-bearer, did quite well in his home Land of North Rhine-Westphalia, but still the SPD garnered only 37 percent of the vote, only marginally more than predicted.

During the campaign, the moderate Mr. Rau was continually undercut by his party leadership. Rau's personal success should tell the party something about where the voters' hearts lie. But if he is made to be the fall guy for the party and is ultimately eliminated as a force within it, the SPD is likely to continue its leftward drift unchecked.

A number of issues-that-might-have-been failed to spark much debate, such as unemployment (8.9 percent, but no party claims to have a solution) and the recent kidnappings of Germans in Beirut.

Helmut Kohl, often portrayed as bumbling and wary of, if not hostile to, the press, has taken most of the assumptions about politics in the television age and stood them on their ear. He has converted the virtues of ordinariness into political triumph.

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