Global Policy Forum

Head of Germany's Moderate Right Party


By Roger Cohen

New York Times
February 17, 2000

Berlin - The crisis of the conservative party that has governed and stabilized Germany for most of the postwar years deepened today with the abrupt resignation of its leader, Wolfgang Schäuble. The departure of Mr. Schäuble, who was handpicked by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl to be his successor as party leader in 1998, leaves the opposition Christian Democratic Union rudderless at a time of profound shifts in the political landscape of German-speaking Europe.

The rise of Jí¶rg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria has illustrated the potential attraction of a nationalist right in a Europe now more fearful of globalization than Communism. Against that backdrop, the plight of German Christian Democracy, the only mass movement of the moderate right here, is causing widespread concern.

Mr. Schäuble directly addressed those concerns today as he quit. "The crisis of the Christian Democratic Union must not be permitted to become a crisis in our democracy," he said. "For that reason it is imperative that the Christian Democrats remain the main integrating force at the center of German politics." But battered by a financial scandal that has included disclosures that Mr. Kohl accepted $1 million in cash from anonymous donors while he was chancellor, can the party that has governed Germany for 37 of the postwar years remain such a crucial "integrating force"?

Ever since Konrad Adenauer guided the reconstruction of Germany after World War II, having campaigned with the slogan "no experiments," the party has embodied German conservatism while dampening nationalist or extremist temptations. Its current debacle has therefore opened the possibility of a troubling void on the German right. "This is the deepest moment of the party's troubles, but I still don't see a total dismemberment," said Hans-Peter Mí¶ller, a political analyst. "German Christian Democracy is a resilient beast, but one now desperately in need of new blood." Who among a generation of Christian Democrats now in their 40's can provide such an injection of new energy remains unclear. What is clear is that this generation is being hurriedly pushed toward national responsibility at a time when the party is morally and financially close to bankruptcy.

Mr. Schäuble, 57, represented the old school, one now tainted by its association with the system of illicit financing put in place by Mr. Kohl. Mr. Schäuble vowed repeatedly to see his party through the crisis, but in the end his credibility lay in tatters and even his most loyal lieutenants deserted him. "The Christian Democratic Union is in the midst of the worst crisis of its history," Mr. Schäuble acknowledged today. "Violations have been committed against party laws and the principle of transparency in ways we never imagined possible."

The party was fined $21 million on Tuesday by the speaker of Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse of the governing Social Democratic Party. The punishment was for the Christian Democrats' acceptance of tens of millions of dollars in illegal contributions during the 1980's and 1990's. Article 21 of the German Constitution says parties "must publicly account for the sources of their funds."

The last two months have seen almost incessant disclosures about the illicit practices of the Christian Democrats during the 16-year rule of Mr. Kohl, which ended in 1998. Accounts of cash donations in paper bags and payments from secret Swiss accounts have had a shattering effect on the party. The gravity of the illegal transactions was brought home by the size of the fine announced by Mr. Thierse. "The official recognition that the party will have to carry this enormous financial burden was the straw that broke the camel's back," wrote Johann Michael Mí¶ller in the conservative daily Die Welt.

Mr. Schäuble's resignation accentuated pressure on Mr. Kohl -- who resigned a month ago as the party's honorary chairman -- to quit the party and give up his seat in Parliament. The former chancellor, whose enormous achievement was to unite Germany while reassuring its Western allies that the old Adenauer slogan of "no experiments" still applied, has disappeared from public view.

Mr. Kohl has stubbornly refused to identify the donors who gave him $1 million from 1993 to 1998, saying he gave his "word of honor" that he would protect their anonymity. In effect, he has placed his "honor" above the Constitution to which he swore allegiance each time he took office as chancellor. As long as he remains silent, the efforts of the Christian Democrats to overcome their crisis will clearly be complicated.

The post-cold-war years in Europe have already seen the disintegration of the Italian Christian Democratic Party, which governed for decades after World War II, and crises of British and French conservatism. At least two basic problems of these parties are shared: the disappearance of the old Communist enemy against which definition was simple, and the move of the left toward centrist and pro-market positions once occupied by conservatives. But nowhere does a crisis of the moderate right raise more alarming specters than in Germany.

Elsewhere in German-speaking Europe, Mr. Haider's anti-immigrant party has seen its support surge to more than 27 percent from 5 percent of Austrian voters in the last 15 years. And Christoph Blocher's Swiss People's Party has increased its vote share to more than 20 percent with a message carrying nationalist echoes. Mr. Schäuble clearly decided today that his own ambition to be chancellor could no longer outweigh an obligation to save the party. "Without a clear change in personnel, we will not be able to liberate ourselves from this crisis," he said.

In the last two days he has been bitterly criticized by party leaders in two states -- Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia -- that are facing elections in the next three months. Jürgen Ruttgers, the party's candidate in a critical state election in North Rhine-Westphalia in May, said "a new beginning" was essential. Mr. Ruttgers, 48, will now be one of the candidates to replace Mr. Schäuble when a decision is made at the party convention in April.

Other leading candidates include Angela Merkel, 45, the general secretary of the party, whose evident outrage at the disclosures of the last two months and equally evident determination to root out corruption in the party have furthered her cause. What is already clear is that whoever is chosen will have to prove that the Christian Democrats can still represent the deep-rooted strains of German conservatism in a way convincing to what is now a skeptical and troubled electorate.


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