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Pocketbook Issues Propel Far Right. WEST GERMANY: WILL THE CENTER HOLD?

BY mid-morning, the local headquarters of West Germany's far-right Republican Party is buzzing. Organizers drop by to chat, and a steady trickle of voters come in to sign up. The far right is enjoying a surge in West Germany, and Republicans are cresting the wave.

``Just fill out the form and leave it on the desk,'' says a young organizer, trying to answer the telephone while being quizzed by an elderly West Berliner on how the party intends to use his membership dues.

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The Republicans, headed by a former Waffen-SS sergeant, snared a small but surprising 7.5 percent of the vote in recent West Berlin elections and are now focusing efforts on state and local races - and the June election for the European Parliament.

The Republicans are not about to sweep into power. But they do pose a serious threat to West Germany's center-right coalition government in upcoming elections - since they could pull away enough votes to make it impossible for the mainstream conservatives to build an effective ruling coalition.

A poll released last week by the Election Research Group in Mannheim shows that if national elections were held now, the Republicans would pull 4 percent of the vote, just 1 percentage point under the constitutional minimum needed to enter the West German parliament.

Some West German conservatives are uneasy with what they perceive as a ``leftward drift'' by the Bonn government. The death last fall of Franz Josef Strauss - the arch-conservative Bavarian leader - has deprived West Germany's ruling center-right coalition of its right-wing anchor and created a void which the Republicans as well as other fringe groups are eager to fill.

The Bonn government is scrambling to regain voters by aiming initiatives at Republican themes. This week, the interior minister proposed limiting the influx of Poles using tourist visas to seek asylum in Germany.

Meanwhile, a similar erosion is taking place at the opposite end of the political spectrum, with the left-wing Greens attracting voters who might otherwise vote for the mainstream Social Democrats.

West Berlin already has gotten a strong taste of this polarization. ``Nearly every fifth voter in Berlin now picks a radical party - either the far left or the far right,'' says Barbara John, a special commissioner for foreigners in West Berlin.

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In the Jan. 29 election, the Republicans drained enough support from the ruling Christian Democrats to leave the two main parties in a virtual tie. Leaders have tried building various coalitions to govern the city in the wake of the election, including a ``red-green coalition'' built from the Social Democrats and the left-wing Alternative List, Berlin's version of the Greens. But so far, nothing has worked.

In many ways, West Berlin is unique. But the elements which make this city ripe for radical politics - such high unemployment and a heavy concentration of foreigners - are found to varying degrees across the country.

The Republicans wrap their message in a fuzzy vision of revitalized German nationalism. National Party leader Franz Sch"onhuber has said West Germany needs to restore pride in ``German national identity'' and that today's Germans should stop feeling guilty for the past.

Not surprisingly, this rhetoric has sparked concern about the potential for a neo-Nazi upsurge - under the Republican banner.

But Sch"onhuber insists the Republicans are not neo-Nazis. And, so far, his party has not been labeled as such by the watchdog agency that monitors extremist groups in West Germany. Christian Lochte, head of the State Agency for the Protection of the Constitution, has said the Republicans are ``at the extreme right-wing fringe of the democratic spectrum,'' but they remain under close scrutiny.

The sudden growth of West Germany's right wing follows a similar pattern in other parts of Western Europe. Italy, Britain, France, and Belgium have all witnessed an upswing on the far right in recent years. Most well-known is Jean-Marie Le Pen's xenophobic National Front in France, which surged last year, but has since seen setbacks.

``This is a sort of a normalization which has taken longer in Germany than in other places - because of the taboos we have,'' says Ms. John. In the past, the special commissioner said, no one dared speak out on issues such as foreigners, fearing they'd be ``stamped as Nazis.''

The ``typical'' Republican voter, say analysts, is a working-class German worried about unemployment and housing.

Ironically, anti-foreign sentiment in West Germany is strongest against those who are technically German: the growing wave of newcomers of German ancestry from East-bloc countries.A record 200,000 of these ``East-bloc Germans'' came to West Germany last year, where they qualify for government assistance and preferential treatment in obtaining subsidized housing. This has sparked deep resentment.

West Germany also takes in a steady stream of asylum-seekers and workers from southern Europe and Turkey - many of whom have no intention of leaving.

``Our leaders keep saying this is a non-immigrant society,'' says John. And as a result, she says, many voters don't understand that a major social change is under way.

Meanwhile, the next test for the far right comes on March 12, when Frankfurt holds municipal elections. If the Republicans put in a strong showing there, it will boost chances of right-wing inroads in state and national elections scheduled for next year.

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