West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced a major shuffle of his Cabinet on Thursday in what observers said was a determined effort to improve the government’s image to stave off defeat in the next election.
The move had been expected because of the government’s plummeting popularity, but it remains to be seen how politically effective the ministerial changes, the most sweeping since Kohl took office in 1982, will be.
The new Cabinet is expected to deal more forcefully with issues that Kohl has been slow to address. His government has come under attack for its health and pension reforms and for its liberal policy on accepting refugees and asylum-seekers who come to West Germany. The chancellor’s perceived lack of leadership has contributed to the rise of the far right and radical Greens in recent elections, German political analysts say.
In the shuffle, Kohl fired the unpopular defense minister, former Berlin Sen. Rupert Scholz, and replaced him with Gerhard Stoltenberg, 60, a powerful politician who had been finance minister.
To the finance post, Kohl appointed Theo Waigel, 50, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union.
He moved Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann, 63, another leading member of the CSU, to the Transport Ministry, handing the Interior Ministry portfolio, which controls police and security matters, to Wolfgang Schaeuble, 47, a rising parliamentary star who had been the trusted chief of staff of Kohl’s chancellery team.
The chancellor also sacked his personal press spokesman, Fried-helm Ost, who has been criticized for his bumbling style and the resulting failure to project government policy effectively, particularly during the row over West German involvement in a suspected Libyan chemical arms plant.
The new press chief is Hans (Johnny) Klein, 58, a former journalist and member of Parliament who is popular with most of the West German press corps.
Gerda Hasselfeldt, 38, an economist, mother of two and a member of the Christian Socialists, was appointed minister for public works, joining two other women in the Cabinet--Ursula Lehr, 58, at Youth, Family and Health, and Dorothee Wilms, 68, at Inner-German Relations.
“For the first time in West German history,” said Kohl, “we have three women ministers in the Cabinet.”
Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a leader of the Free Democratic Party, remains in office, though he and Kohl seldom see eye-to-eye on foreign policy.
Kohl must do a better job of riding herd on the Christian Democrats, the Christian Socialists and the Free Democrats, the three parties in the governing coalition, political analysts say. The analysts blame public disagreements among the three parties for contributing seriously to their poor showing in local elections this year.
Most public opinion polls show the Bonn government would fall if a national election were held now. That election is not scheduled until December, 1990, but the coalition will try to improve its performance in the European Parliament balloting to be held June 18.