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Kohl Faces Touch Realities after Narrow Re-election Win

By Rick Atkinson
The Washington Post
BERLIN

It has been quite a year for Helmut Kohl.

The German chancellor presided over a robust recovery from his country's worst recession since World War II. He ushered the last Russian troops from German soil. He came back from the political dead to win a fourth term in office, resurrecting both his lifeless Christian Democratic party and his even more moribund coalition partner, the Free Democrats.

Now comes the hard part.

As Monday morning's Berliner Zeitung newspaper observed of the ruling coalition's narrow victory Sunday, "What awaits Kohl and his new government is not an edifying term in office, but the hour of reality, a sobering confrontation with pent-up problems, the depths of which are only now becoming clear: oppressive mass unemployment, huge government debts, unpayable entitlements, a split society."

All true, unfortunately, for Germany and for Kohl, whose re-election - by just 143,000 votes out of nearly 50 million cast - hardly hands him a triumphant mandate with which to confront his country's challenges. A 10-seat majority out of 672 seats in the new German parliament, West German Radio observed, "is a miserable starting point for an effective government."

And if Germany is ineffective, the consequences extend far beyond Bonn. The German economy is the world's third largest, behind those of the United States and Japan. As Europe's most populous nation, geographically centered in a continent struggling to become one, Germany is simply too big, too central and too rich to avoid becoming the fulcrum on which European progress teeters.

In explaining why he sought to extend a tenure that already has lasted 12 years, Kohl cites twin ambitions: finishing the work of European unity and finishing the work of German unity.

Both brands of unity may be within Kohl's reach, but neither will be wholly successful if Germany becomes mired in the problems threatening it. Solutions would be hard to come by even for the strongest government, and Kohl's is among the weakest in postwar history. Voicing a common sentiment among the newly strengthened left-of-center opposition, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder predicted that Kohl "cannot rule in Germany with such a pathetic majority."

The chancellor's powers will be tested to the utmost to prove Schroeder wrong.