West Germany is moving into the final stages of a deadly dull election campaign with Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ruling center-right coalition apparently effortlessly cruising to a comfortable victory over his Social Democrat rivals Jan. 25.
Voters have sunk into a state of apathy, more concerned about the New Year festivities and their winter holidays than who will govern the country for the next four years.The result seems a foregone conclusion. The opinion polls give Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrat Union and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union about 48 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats (SPD) are stuck at 35 percent to 38 percent. The Free Democrats (FDP), West Germany's Liberals, have 7 percent and the radical anti-nuclear Greens are pegging along at 7 percent to 10 percent.
The SPD's fate was sealed after the Nov. 9 elections for the Hamburg city- state Parliament. The CDU became the biggest party with just over 42 percent of the vote, edging out the SPD, which has ruled the city for 37 of the last 41 years. But the biggest surprise was sprung by the Greens, who scored over 10 percent.
Mr. Kohl is reaping the rewards of economic management that surpasses that of most other Western governments. Inflation has been licked and prices actually are falling for the first time since the 1950s. The trade surplus is increasing by the month; the total for the first 11 months of 1986 topped 100 billion deutsche marks ($50 billion). Average growth in gross national product in 1986 is expected to be just under 3 percent, better than that of any other large industrial country except Italy. The surge in the value of the deutsche mark has cut import costs dramatically and boosted the consumer's purchasing power.
The only black spot is unemployment, which is expected to stick at well above 2 million next year. But unemployment is not a key election issue, as the demoralized SPD has learned, and the government has ruled out any new efforts to reflate the economy to reduce the dole (unemployment benefit) queues.
The SPD, squeezed by the CDU-CSU on the right and the Greens on the left
hasn't got much to cheer about. Its traditional working-class supporters have been alienated by the long-festering scandal of the union-owned Neue Heimat. Europe's largest property group, its portfolio of 190,000 homes was sold to an unknown Berlin baker in September for DM1 (50 cents) to cover the union's losses in the company, which has debts of DM17 billion. The SPD was found guilty by association. Its vote in the working-class districts of Hamburg crumbled by 12 percent.
The lackluster election campaign masks the growing polarization between the two bigparties, especially on defense and foreign affairs. Chancellor Kohl is making anti-communist and nationalist noises. He enraged the Soviets by comparing the publicity skills of Mikhail Gorbachev with those of the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Eschewing the Ostpolitik that has has shaped Bonn's dealings with East Germany for many years, he said the Communist state was ruled by a "system that is alien to man." Mr. Kohl is using the taboo word "Fatherland" and Franz Joseph Strauss, leader of the CSU, has urged Germans to bury their guilt about the Nazi past.
The SPD is moving in the other direction. It has signed an agreement with East Germany's Communist Party to remove all nuclear weapons from a 90-mile strip on either side of their borders, wants to reduce the country's military role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and end West Germany's participation in the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative research program.
The increasing polarization on these issues is unlikely to have any impact on the electorate. The more strident tone of the politicians is the product of internal power struggles within the major parties. Johannes Rau, SPD leader, is under fire from the left of the party, worried by the rise of the Greens. Mr. Kohl is attempting to assert his leadership of the center-right coalition as the ambitious 73-year-old Franz Joseph Strauss makes a final bid for more power in the next CDU-CSU government.
The electorate could spring a surprise because both major parties always have relied on the support of the Free Democrats to form a government. The FDP was in coalition with the Social Democrats until 1982 when they switched sides and formed a coalition with Mr. Kohl. The big question in this election is whether these "kingmakers" will gain the 5 percent of the vote necessary to win sets in the Bundestag. In Hamburg they failed to clear the hurdle.
The position is complicated by the rise of potential new kingmakers, the Greens, who are cashing in on public concern about nuclear power in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster and the pollution of the Rhine by a recent chemical spill in Switzerland.
The political analysts are having a field day. Support for the FDP needs to drop only 2 percent to push it out of Parliament. The CDU-CSU might just
break the mold and achieve an overall majority. If the first happens and the second does not, the SPD and the Greens - already governing in the state of Hesse - would be able to form a coalition.
Mr. Rau repeatedly has ruled out a deal with the Greens who want West Germany to pull out of NATO and close all nuclear plants immediately. But many in his party would be sorely tempted to abandon their leader and team up with the Greens.
The prospect of an "unholy" SPD-Green alliance probably will scare a sufficient number of moderate voters to get the FDP back into the Bundestag , giving Mr. Kohl another four years of power.
Nothing is a sure bet, even in West German elections, but this is the most likely outcome.