MUNICH, WEST GERMANY
JUST a year ago, the far-right Republikaner Party seemed to be alarmingly on the rise. Its popularity worried West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who seemed unable to prevent the defection of voters from his own conservative party to the nationalist ``Reps.'' The Republikaners even gained 7.2 percent of the German vote in the European Parliament elections last June.
But then the wall came down - and with it, a major reason for the party's existence. In two key West German state elections on May 13, the Republikaners garnered less than 2 percent of the vote. In another state race in January, they did only slightly better with 3.3 percent.
``The Republikaners are out of German politics,'' says Kurt Sontheimer, a specialist in German domestic politics at the University of Munich.
The reasons for his party's recent losses are external, says Franz Sch"onhuber, a former member of the Waffen SS, a journalist, and the controversial chairman of the Republikaners.
``The main reason is the unbelievable persecution we've suffered at the hands of the media. I can only compare it to the Nazis' campaign against political dissidents in 1933.''
Political observers outside the party, however, see other causes for the losing streak.
``Basically, the Republikaners' key issues faded into the background once the wall came down,'' says Professor Sontheimer.
``Last year, they tried to stir up resentment against East German and East European immigrants. ... But the Republikaners are German nationalists. They couldn't very well polemicize against the East Germans moving to West Germany - the East Germans are Germans, too.''
The Republikaners were also unable to capitalize on the all-important reunification issue, even though they have been preaching the reunification of Germany for some time.
``We are the original reunification party and the others are just copies. But the media, of course, put the spotlight on the copies,'' says Mr. Sch"onhuber.
``The political stage was completely dominated by Chancellor Kohl,'' adds Norbert Lepszy of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. ``The Republikaners couldn't seem to get a handle on the reunification issue.''
Basically a regional party, the Republikaners lack a strong organization outside their conservative homeland in the southern state of Bavaria. The small, core constituency is motivated by traditional conservative issues like German nationalism, limits on immigration, and law and order.
But there has been little order in Republikaner ranks in recent months. An increasingly outspoken right wing has damaged Sch"onhuber's effort to project a more moderate image. Meanwhile, Alexander von Schrenck-Notzing, the moderate student chairman of the Republikaner University League, has moved to dissolve that student group, the only one of its kind in the country.
``Today the Reps are a party without a future,'' he says.
The next eight months should decide whether there is a future for the Republikaners in West Germany, or in a reunited Germany, for that matter.
In the Bavarian elections in October, the party has a chance of clearing the 5 percent hurdle and making it into the state legislature. In West Germany, the rule is a party must garner at least 5 percent of the vote before it gets a single seat in the legislature.
Much to the relief of Mr. Kohl, the Republikaners are given very little chance of winning a seat in the nationwide West German elections on Dec. 2. ``The problem of the Republikaners is basically solved,'' says Dr. Lepszy.
Now, however, it looks as if this election may be replaced by an all-German election. This is where Sch"onhuber believes he has a chance.
Even though the party (including Sch"onhuber himself) is outlawed in East Germany, this hasn't stopped him from trying to gather support there.
``I'm certain we'll sit in the all-German parliament,'' Sch"onhuber says.
``One thing the voters know about me - I've always been against the communists.''