Germans Spurn Politics as Usual, as Disillusionment Takes Hold Soaring Costs of Reunification and the Strains of Absorbing Asylum-Seekers Are Weakening the Two Major Political Blocs That Have Led the German Government since World War II

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THE deep disappointment Germans are registering with the way Helmut Kohl's government has handled the challenges of reunification and the sensitive issue of asylum may alter the traditional coalition mathematics of the Bundestag - and Germany's political future.

Moreover, political scientists are finding troubling indications of a trend away from political engagement: Voter turnout, though still high, is falling, and party membership and other forms of participation are regarded less favorably.

"There's a great risk of fragmentation," says Jochen Thies, a political analyst and the managing editor of Europa Archiv. "There is danger in the asylum issue, that if it is not more or less settled, the fragmentation will go on."

"The basis of the political stability of the Federal Republic {of Germany} is its economic strength," says political scientist Dieter Roth. With Germany in a slowdown, if not a full recession, the strains of absorbing the expected 400,000 asylum applicants this year are apparent.

Germans are signaling unhappiness, not only with Chancellor Kohl's conservative coalition, reelected less than two years ago, but also with the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Some observers say politicians are focusing too much on the Maastrict Treaty on European economic and political union while displaying reluctance to condemn violence for fear of alienating far-right voters.

To speak of a "drift to the right" in Germany is, for historical reasons, to sound an alarm. But elections are won "to the right of the center," says Finance Minister Theo Waigel, chairman of the rightist Christian Social Union (CSU).

Even politicians to his left seem to be heeding his motto. In a move seen as an appeal to the center and right, the SPD leadership has decided to pursue a constitutional change to restrict the right of asylum. In defense of the decision, party chairman Bjorn Engholm says, it is not a bad idea "to keep an eye on what moves the people."

The SPD members of the Bundestag, the federal parliament, broke with their leadership and boycotted Thursday's vote on a proposal to alter the Constitution to restrict the right of asylum. The SPD is to hold a special conference next month on whether to adopt the leadership's new policy proposal.

The question of dealing with the influx of foreigners has been framed by all the parties largely in terms of constitutional and other legal changes to restrict that influx; the situation is reminiscent of American proposals to balance the budget deficit by constitutional amendment.

Meanwhile, violence against foreigners, mostly attacks on asylum-seekers' hostels, continues unabated, with 1,400 assaults so far this year. No clear government counterstrategy is in view. …


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