After Kohl, Germany Shifts Left Sunday's Win by Social Democrat Leader Gerhard Schroder Reflects Trend in Other European Nations

Article excerpt

In the end, he overstayed his welcome.

Helmut Kohl, who had made so much history during his record- setting 16 years at Germany's helm, made it again as he lost last Sunday's elections: He became the first chancellor since World War II to be voted out of office by an electorate simply tired of a leader who had run out of ideas.

By turning in unexpectedly large numbers to Social Democratic candidate Gerhard Schroder, Germans expressed their desire for a fresh approach to their future as a new century beckons.

And the vote brought Europe's most pivotal nation into line with its neighbors, on the center-left. Spain is now the only major European country led by a conservative government.

But the transformations go beyond political alignment.

As Mr. Schroder, born in 1944, declared in his victory statement, "the voters have chosen a generational change."

For the first time, Germany will be ruled by men and women who have no firsthand memories of the war, or Nazi rule, presaging a less-anguished approach to foreign relations.

Also for the first time, it seems from the election results, the environmental party, the Greens, will join the national government, if only as a junior coalition partner with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

If Schroder invites them to join his Cabinet, Green leaders will enjoy influence unmatched elsewhere in the world to shape policy on everything from taxes to transportation along ecology-friendly lines. Details of Schroder's policy intentions, however, remain sketchy.

Change... with continuity

He won the elections by offering much-sought-after change, but at the same time he was careful not to frighten away the average conservative, consensus-minded German voter. Even in victory, as he addressed his supporters on Sunday night, he maintained this ambiguous stance. "It will be our task to modernize our country thoroughly and overcome the blockage of reforms," he declared, voicing one of his major campaign themes.

But he had scarcely drawn breath before also pledging that "I want to stand for continuity," the other message he had sought to convey.

Underpinning both these strands has been a call for social justice. And although Schroder has made much of the "new center" ground that he has captured, his sense of obligation to traditional SPD voters could make him hesitant to push through hard tax and pension reforms that everyone agrees are needed, but that would be painful and unpopular.

Indeed, the SPD is pledged to roll back even the timid reforms that Mr. …