Kohl Appears to Weather Spy Scandal; Popularity Suffers

Times Staff Writer

Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s conservative government appears to have weathered the latest spy scandal in West Germany, although Kohl’s personal popularity has suffered.

A public opinion survey carried out by a television network this week gave Kohl a rating of minus 0.2 on a scale of minus 5 to plus 5.

It was the first minus rating ever for an incumbent chancellor. Yet Kohl’s governing coalition of Christian Democrats, Christian Socialists and Free Democrats easily turned back a Social Democratic challenge in the Bundestag (lower house of Parliament). The Social Democrats had demanded that Kohl dismiss Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann, on grounds that he was at least partly responsible for the scandal.

The spy scandal, involving among other incidents the defection to the East of a senior official in the counterespionage service, was the latest in a series of setbacks for Kohl. Earlier there had been the Bitburg cemetery incident, involving a visit by President Reagan to a graveyard where among others a number of SS (Nazi elite force) troops are buried, a disappointing economic summit conference and the loss of the recent elections in North Rhine-Westphalia to the opposition Social Democrats.

“Kohl is viewed as something of a bumbler,” a political analyst observed Wednesday. “And while he is not particularly popular he is, curiously, not particularly unpopular.”


‘Rather Limited Man’

Another observer remarked: “The chancellor is regarded by many as a rather limited man. He is considered a good provincial politician, what we Germans call a ‘clever farmer,’ but that is not necessarily all bad.”

And several political commentators have pointed to the fact that, despite Kohl’s limitations, he is in command of the coalition and there is no one of real stature in a position to challenge his leadership--at least for the present.

“As a shrewd provincial party regular, he made a lot of friends, and granted a lot of favors,” one commentator said. “That puts him in a strong position against potential rivals.”

Also, the opposition Social Democrats appear to have no one to put up against Kohl and the conservatives.

Barring further developments that could undermine Kohl’s position, there need be no general election until 1987, and the Social Democrats seem to be uncertain about who will lead them then: Hans-Jochen Vogel, the party chairman in the Bundestag, or Johannes Rau, the popular new premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in West Germany.

Neither of the two seems particularly eager to run against Kohl, even a Kohl whose personal popularity has been diminished.

Spying Will Continue

The Social Democrats seem equally unable to capitalize on the spy scandal. For most West Germans realize that as long as West Germany seeks to improve relations with East Germany, no matter who is chancellor, East German spies will continue to operate across the border.

“That is a fact of life that most Germans have learned to live with,” a Western diplomat said.

The Social Democrats may raise the “Star Wars” issue in the future, though it is not yet clear how this issue--the Strategic Defense Initiative put forward by President Reagan--will affect this country.

A 30-man West German delegation left for Washington Wednesday for 10 days of talks on how West Germany will take part in this multibillion dollar research program. The delegation is led by Kohl’s security adviser, Horst Teltschik, who is reported to be insisting that West German cooperation not be a one-way street and that Bonn share in any advances in high-technology that may result from it.

Kohl originally supported Reagan’s plan, but now seems to be only lukewarm about it.

Misgivings Expressed

West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Research Minister Heinz Riesenhuber have also expressed misgivings about the “Star Wars” proposal and the effect it might have on the U.S.-Soviet arms control talks in Geneva.

Thus, the Social Democrats have no significant issue with which to harass Kohl. Meanwhile, Kohl has managed to keep Bavarian state Premier Franz Josef Strauss on his side, even though the leader of the Christian Democrats and the leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union have little love for each other and are given to making snide remarks about other each in private.

One reason Kohl did not dismiss Zimmermann, his interior minister, is because Zimmermann is an ally of Strauss.

Strauss, who for years has wanted to be chancellor, reflects the ambivalent attitude of West German leaders toward their erstwhile countrymen in East Germany. On the one hand, they detest the Moscow-oriented, totalitarian government for sending its spies across into West Germany; on the other, they want to encourage trade and closer relations between the two Germanys.

Strauss, then, despite his delight in Kohl’s embarrassment over the spy scandal, has minimized the incident in public, and like his partners in the coalition, he hopes the worst of the storm has passed.