Germans voted freely as a united nation Sunday for the first time since the rise of Adolf Hitler, handing Chancellor Helmut Kohl an overwhelming mandate to lead them through the dawn of a new European era.
Despite the historic significance of the vote, turnout was reportedly the lowest since 1949--a reflection of both a lackluster campaign and voter exhaustion after a year of stunning change that redrew the map of a continent.
The cold and damp election day marked the finish line of an emotional marathon the Germans began just 388 days earlier with the breaching of the Berlin Wall.
“This is a day of great joy,” a beaming Kohl declared, claiming victory a scant 90 minutes after polls closed. “This is a tremendous success and we can be proud of it.”
Kohl and the newly elected 656-member Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament, face a unique set of challenges to successfully meld together two economically and psychologically disparate societies under the mantle of an anxious country now cast in Europe’s leading role.
Returns early today gave Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Christian Social Union, a total of 316 seats in the Bundestag. Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s liberal Free Democratic Party, the junior partner in the three-party ruling coalition, captured 79 seats.
The opposition Social Democratic Party won 240 seats, while the restructured East German Communist Party grabbed 14 seats and the alternative Alliance 90 gained 7.
Supporters chanted “Hel-mut! Hel-mut!” as the beefy 60-year-old chancellor shouldered his way through a crush of reporters at his Christian Democratic headquarters in Bonn.
“This is the best election result ever reached by a democratic party in Germany, and I have reason to be happy,” Kohl said.
With just 78% of 59.9 million eligible voters casting ballots, Kohl’s center-right party and its Bavarian ally scored 44.1% with their junior partner, the Free Democrats, tallying 11%. The opposition Social Democrats suffered their worst defeat since 1957, garnering just 33.5% of the vote.
Kicked out of Parliament altogether were the environmentalist Greens, once the toast of the German left and the driving force behind massive protests against NATO’s deployment of nuclear missiles on German soil in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, voters in the east gave the restructured Communist Party the oomph it needed to win parliamentary representation, and the nationalistic right-extremist Republicans took a drubbing.
Overall, voting trends in the eastern region mirrored those in the western part of the country.
Berlin, voting as a single city for the first time in 44 years, took a conservative turn amid urban unrest that hit a flash-point earlier this month when police clashed with violent squatters in the city center.
The Christian Democrats, led by former West Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, pulled in 37.5% of the vote in what acting Social Democratic Mayor Walter Momper called a “bitter defeat.”
Several divisive issues loom for the new German government, which is expected to be confirmed Dec. 20 in the official capital of Berlin, with Kohl being formally named chancellor the following day.
Among other things, the new Bundestag must choose between Bonn and Berlin as the seat of government, decide whether to legalize abortion and consider amnesty for more than 1 million spies, informants, secret police, border guards and Communist officials who made East Germany a model of Cold War repression.
That sinister past shadowed the reunited nation even on election day, as Soviet military officials blocked the arrest of former East German leader Erich Honecker on charges of manslaughter.
Honecker, 78, has been confined since last April to a Soviet military hospital 20 miles south of Berlin. An arrest warrant was issued Saturday, but Soviet officials refused to turn Honecker over without direct orders from Moscow.
German prosecutors hold Honecker responsible for the deaths of 190 East Germans killed while trying to flee to the West before a bloodless revolution forced the borders open and toppled the hard-line Communist regime in the fall of 1989.
The East German quest for democracy shifted virtually overnight into a call for German unity, and Kohl, long regarded as a plodding politician from the Rhineland, deftly seized the moment to become the respected architect of unification.
“The script . . . was written for the government and we came out of it with a black eye,” acknowledged Oskar Lafontaine, the Social Democrats’ challenger to Kohl, who campaigned as the “chancellor of unity.”
Lafontaine, the acerbic 47-year-old prime minister of Saarland state, lost ground for the Social Democrats in what analysts said should have been the party’s hour of glory by expressing reservations about accepting the flood of East German refugees who began fleeing to the West in the summer of 1989.
Lafontaine’s reluctance to join the call for quick unity clearly alienated many East Germans as well as older West German voters who had witnessed the postwar division of their homeland. After all, it was the Social Democrats who first advocated rapprochement with the East Bloc, and their chancellor at the time, Willy Brandt, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his ostpolitik (politics looking to the east).
Lafontaine, who nearly died when a deranged woman slashed his throat at a campaign rally last spring, attempted to put a brave face on Sunday’s humiliation by insisting that the Social Democrats had “mobilized the youth” of Germany.
“And that is the future,” Lafontaine said in a somber party headquarters in Bonn.
Even more somber was the mood at the headquarters of the Greens, who failed to garner the 5% necessary to win representation in the Bundestag.
As campaign workers dabbed away tears, party leaders reflected on the loss.
“First, we have to look at ourselves,” said Hubert Kleinert, who was a Greens deputy in the last Bundestag. “The policy of the last four years hasn’t been good, and most of all, it hasn’t been presented well enough,” he said in an interview on German television.
“If this party doesn’t change very quickly, then we’ll be looking at a very bleak future,” he added.
The Greens lose representation at a time when environmental issues are at the forefront, with the government expected to shell out millions of dollars to combat heavy pollution in what used to be East Germany.
The Party of Democratic Socialism, the reformist successor to East Germany’s iron-fisted Communist Party, was snubbed by voters in the western states but carried 10% in the east.
Ironically, the party fared twice as well as Alliance 90, the umbrella party that includes many of the pro-democracy activists who spearheaded the grass-roots revolution that toppled the Communists from power in East Germany a little over a year ago.
“We managed to bring a Socialist party into the first all-German Bundestag--that’s an achievement,” said the party chairman, Gregor Gysi. “We are now the leftist democratic alternative party of choice.”
The small victory came despite recent revelations that the reformed Communists tried to hide $170 million in Moscow to prevent confiscation by the united German government. The party still controls millions--if not billions--worth of property and assets, though it has pledged to turn over 80% of its wealth.
Whether to punish Honecker and his corrupt cronies is a decision the new Bundestag will have to quickly consider, since many of the dozen or so men involved are elderly or reportedly ailing.
The last time Germany voted freely as a single nation was in November, 1932, when Kurt Schleicher was named chancellor. He resigned two months later amid growing civil violence and ineffectual parliamentary government. President Paul von Hindenburg then called on Adolf Hitler to become chancellor of a coalition government, and Hitler took office Jan. 30, 1933.