Opposition Rift May Strengthen Kohl : West Germany: The chancellor’s hopes for quick reunification look more promising. The Social Democrats disagree on that key issue.


Barely two weeks after victories in two state elections lifted the opposition Social Democrats into a position to challenge West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on key elements of the German unification process, serious internal differences threaten to destroy those gains.

Political observers here say the differences that have erupted between the party leadership and its own prospective candidate for chancellor, Oskar Lafontaine, over how to deal with unity seem certain to strengthen Kohl’s domestic political base--and, with it, his drive for swift unification and all-German elections possibly as soon as late this year.

The Social Democrats, with Lafontaine in the forefront, have consistently opposed fast unification, calling for a more careful, deliberate pace.

Many political analysts interpreted the Social Democrats’ May 13 election victory in two state elections as a reflection of a growing undercurrent of opinion in West Germany that Kohl was forcing unification so fast that even those involved in the decisions were having little or no time to consider alternative policy options or weigh the costs accurately.


That victory gave the Social Democrats a majority in the upper house of the West German Parliament and the potential to block or delay unity-related legislation.

While it gave them real influence over parts of unification for the first time and ended their complaint of being left out of the process, it also sowed the seeds of the present dispute that threatens to undercut those electoral gains.

Lafontaine, an energetic populist, first crossed swords with other members of the party leadership earlier this month. He demanded that the party oppose ratification of the state treaty governing economic, social and monetary union between the two Germanys unless Kohl agrees to provide a series of additional measures, including a provision to cushion unemployment as East Germany begins to restructure its industry.

The party’s hierarchy, aware that people in both Germanys expect the state treaty to win routine ratification and come into effect July 2, balked.

Instead, it indicated that it would press for the additional measures but not at the cost of derailing the treaty itself.

“If we blocked it completely, the only thing anyone would remember was that we were the ones who prevented German unity,” said one party official.

On Monday, in a lengthy interview published in the prominent news weekly Der Spiegel, Lafontaine dismayed the leadership and confused the rank and file by calling for the party to oppose the treaty in the lower house of Parliament, the Bundestag, where Kohl’s ruling coalition has a secure majority. Yet he would let the treaty pass in the upper house, where the Social Democrats could conceivably block it.

“In the Bundestag, there’s no necessity to help carry a decision that’s going to lead to mass unemployment,” Lafontaine explained.

Leading party figures have tried to gloss over the differences, with Chairman Hans-Jochen Vogel dismissing it as a “tempest in a teapot.” At present, however, Lafontaine seems estranged from important members of the parliamentary party who feel committed to backing the treaty in both houses.

East German Social Democrat party leader Markus Meckel labeled any attempt to delay the treaty as “politically irresponsible.”

Meanwhile, Kohl, apparently reacting to the May 13 election results, held talks with the Social Democrats on Tuesday for the first time to listen to their demands to supplement the state treaty.