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Germany hesitates as Europe beckons

At a pivotal time for the nation and Continent, Germany's election campaign shows a preoccupation with aging traditions

GERMANY'S once and future capital has hosted three events in recent months that hammered the final nails in the cold war's coffin and unofficially declared open a new, unnamed age.

Two ceremonies, in August and early September, marked the withdrawal of four World War II allies - the United States, Britain, France, and Russia - from Berlin after an almost 50-year occupation.

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At the Sept. 8 departure ceremonies, British Prime Minister John Major said Berlin ``is today not just a symbol of the new Germany, but also of the new democratic European order.''

His speech echoed comments by President Clinton in July that were designed to be the cold war's epitaph. ``Berlin is free. Everything is possible,'' Mr. Clinton roared to a crowd assembled in the shadow of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

Both remarks underscore how the former occupiers now expect Germany to play a pivotal role in bringing stability to Europe's new era. Some, particularly Clinton, are pushing Germany to take charge in the forging of a united, peaceful Europe.

But how capable is Germany of fulfilling expectations?

Because it is the largest economy in Europe, Germany's decisions will in any event greatly influence all other nations on the Continent. But if Germany is to become the major force for European peace and prosperity as envisioned by Clinton and others, it will first have to adapt itself to the conditions of the new age.

Political and economic success in this new world, strongly influenced by the global reach of communications technology, will require flexibility, innovation, and imagination.

Reluctant heavyweight

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Some experts worry about Germany's ability to implement the structural changes that would make the transition out of the cold war go as smoothly as possible.

Several obstacles now stand in the way. For one, there is the ongoing unification process, which currently consumes the bulk of Germany's attention and resources. But there are also deep-rooted political, social, and economic traditions that may prove difficult to change.

``In public opinion, there is a certain tyranny of the status quo,'' said Jurgen Dongas, a leading German economist. ``Many people think the alternative to the status quo is a curse.''

German parliamentary elections Oct. 16 will mark a crucial point in Germany's evolution. The nation's post-October government will be responsible for setting Germany's course for the new age. And as Germany goes, so may Europe.

But if the election campaign is any indication, Germany's present and future leaders aren't anxious to look ahead.

So far, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has captured most of the attention in the campaign, comfortably ahead in the polls and seemingly cruising along. That worries some political observers, who say the chancellor's cold-war-rooted conservatism is as exhausted an idea as communism.

``An impression is being created that the CDU [Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democratic Union] is moving toward a paralyzing election victory, leaving a dominating chancellor who sits idly and leaves everything open,'' commentator Gunter Hofmann wrote this month in the weekly Die Zeit.

``His party doesn't touch anything new,'' he observed.

The campaign would seem to offer the ideal opportunity for debate on tough questions, including: reunification, economic competitiveness, social-welfare reform, and prioritizing Germany's foreign-policy interests.

Yet rather than addressing issues, politicians have preferred to savage each other - launching personal attacks and scare-mongering, looking for security in the past - rather than grappling with the future.

An easier strategy

Kohl's campaign, for example, concentrates on previous accomplishments. His central theme is predictability through the status quo. ``Securely into the future,'' goes a campaign slogan of his center-right CDU.

Kohl's main political foes in the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), meanwhile, focus on the chancellor's faults. At a campaign rally Sept. 4, SPD leader Rudolf Scharping described the Christian Democrats as ``burned out,'' adding that beyond Kohl there was nothing to the CDU but a ``giant black hole.''

The two parties also are obsessed with the cold war's legacy. Some of the rhetoric is even reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War, in which communism first faced off against fascism in a rehearsal for World War II.

Christian Democrat leaders, in particular, have pilloried the Social Democrats for making ``a deal with the devil.'' Satan in this case is the former East German Communist Party, repackaged for the 1990s as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).

``Communists are fascists painted red,'' Kohl has thundered at recent campaign rallies when speaking about the Democratic Socialists.

``You are trying to continue the cold war, and as a result you are splitting society,'' PDS leader Gregor Gysi scolded Christian Democrat leaders in a recent parliament debate.

The CDU attack stems from the July formation of a minority government, led by the SPD, in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The SPD move shut the CDU out of power in the state. Although the former Communists do not belong to that governing coalition, the Social Democrats must nevertheless rely on the PDS legislative faction's support to govern.

The CDU red-smear tactics have stung the Social Democrats, whose campaign has also been hurt by ennui and internecine bickering.

``It appeals to sentiment,'' political scientist Karlheinz Niclauss said of the CDU tactics. ``Sentiment doesn't solve problems, but it can win elections.''

In the red-scare debate, SPD leaders have riposted that a victory by the Christian Democrats would result in the formation of a ``nationalist front.'' Scharping also insists the SPD would never form a federal government with the help of former East German Communists.

But despite the spin control, the SPD has been largely unsuccessful in presenting itself as a viable alternative to the CDU. Swing voters remain unconvinced that they would be better off with the Social Democrats.

Late last year, with Germany mired in recession, the SPD led the CDU in polls. But the economy is picking up, and figures now show the Social Democrats' popularity lags far behind the ruling Christian Democrats.

Regardless of the polls, precedent suggests that unseating Kohl would be difficult, even if the Social Democrats were running a textbook-perfect campaign.

Political continuity is something that has strong appeal to many Germans. In the postwar era, the electorate has proved unwilling to toss out an incumbent government.

For example, the last time power changed hands - in 1982 - it was the politicians, not the people, who decided on change. At that time, the centrist Free Democratic Party dropped out of the governing coalition with Social Democrats and switched allegiance to Kohl's CDU.

A few months later, the government switch was duly ratified in the general election.

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