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Off-year vote in German state is key test for Kohl Opposition parties may gain today


BERLIN -- The fate of Chancellor Helmut Kohl may hang o the outcome of today's off-year election in the state of Hesse, which includes Frankfurt, Germany's biggest banking and financial center.

These are the only elections in Germany this year, and they are being watched very closely as a gauge of the mood of the voters.

The vote is seen as an especially important test of Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and his main opposition, the Social Democrats. It is also viewed as an indication of the strength of the Green Party and the far right in German politics.

The chancellor's CDU is the party out of power in Frankfurt, and various polls last week showed the party coalition dropping 2 percent to 5 percent or more in the Hesse election today.

The CDU governs nationally in a coalition with the Christian Socialist Union of Bavaria and the Free Democratic Party.

If the voters do dump on the other coalition parties in today's vote, Parliament members of Mr. Kohl's CDU will begin to think about their own necks. They are already restive. Many fear a debacle in the Frankfurt elections.

Much as Conservative parliamentarians forced their leader Margaret Thatcher out of the prime minister's post in Britain last year, coalition politicians may even press Mr. Kohl to resign so they will have enough time to regroup for national elections next year. Those elections will be for chancellor and Parliament, in all five states of the old East Germany and in several states in western Germany.

Mr. Kohl, beset by a multitude of woes, has dropped to his lowest level of popularity since before the unification of Germany in 1990, when a surge of enthusiasm saved him from defeat.

Now unification is widely seen among Germans as bordering on causing more trouble than it is worth. Polls show only that 26 percent agree with Mr. Kohl's policies while 56 percent disagree.

Among the chief complaints, Mr. Kohl is accused of ignoring and even lying to the German people about the human and financial cost of reuniting Germany.

He is twelfth (with 46 percent) in a list of politicians Germans would like to see run the country in the future. Bjorn Engholm, the pipe-smoking leader of the Social Democratic Party, who will oppose the CDU candidate in 1994, is No. 1.

Compounding the problems of the chancellor and his party were government figures released Friday showing German unemployment -- 2,288,900 out of work -- approaching the highest levels reached after World War II. Mr. Kohl is already roundly criticized for failing to show leadership in Germany's present economic crisis.

Mr. Kohl is seen as detached and isolated. Newspapers from Berlin to Bavaria talk about the "Chaos in Bonn."

But the Social Democrats are not wildly more popular than the Christian Democrats, either locally or nationally. In Hesse in 1991, the Social Democrats received 40.8 percent of the vote, the Christian Democrats 40.2. A poll taken in February by Der Spiegel magazine gives the Social Democrats 15.7 million in a national vote, the Christian Democrats 14.8 million.

Both parties are plagued by burgeoning voter apathy. In 1990, 13.4 million people failed to vote. Now an estimated 18 million are believed unlikely to vote in a national election.

Three million people are eligible to vote today in Frankfurt and 21 counties in Hesse. Nobody thinks anywhere near that many will go to the polls.

And the Hesse Chamber of Industry and Commerce says that for the first time in 10 years the state is worse off than the rest of western Germany.

The city of Frankfurt, with a population of 635,000, is governed by a "red-green" coalition of the Social Democrats (the red faction) and the Green Party. The Social Democrats may also lose 5 percent in this year's vote, if pollsters are right.

But the Greens, who polled 8.8 percent in 1991, may get as much as 15 percent today.

They will be helped along by a chemical fog emitted by a Hoescht AG plant two weeks ago. Hoescht stonewalled environmental investigators. Greens say the chemical, if heated

sufficiently, could have produced dioxin. Hoescht denies this.

The question mark in the election is the right-wing Republikaner Party. They are generally conceded at least 5 percent of the vote.

The Greens say unpublished polls show the Republikaners may get 10 percent, which would be taken as evidence of a solid shift to the right among German voters.

In the Frankfurt suburbs, Republikaners still campaign with the motto "the boat is full," a not very veiled anti-foreigner campaign. Der Spiegel reports that 11 percent of the German people agree with them.

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