BERLIN -- Chancellor Helmut Kohl was handed a virtually free ticket to re-election next year when his only effective opponent quit.
Caught in a lie about a 6-year-old campaign scandal, Bjorn Engholm, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, all but gave up politics yesterday.
The suave 53-year-old Mr. Engholm abandoned his plans to run against Chancellor Kohl next year. He quit his party post. And he resigned as president of the north German state of Schleswig- Holstein.
He told a midafternoon leadership meeting of the Social Democrats that he had fudged the truth about his knowledge of a smear campaign against him in 1987.
"I do not want my party to pay for my political mistakes," he said. "My party faces hard times."
By most standards, Mr. Engholm's misbehavior was not horrendous. He has admitted lying about when he knew of a dirty tricks campaign against him during the race for the Schleswig-Holstein presidency in 1987.
His opponent, the Christian Democrat incumbent Uwe Barschel, had circulated untrue rumors that Mr. Engholm, who is married with three daughters, was a homosexual who evaded paying taxes.
The crime was that Mr. Engholm told a special parliamentary committee he knew about the dirty tricks only after the election. But he had known at least a week earlier. He hoped the campaign would backfire and help him.
His "Mr. Clean" image began crumbling six weeks ago when the German press began doggedly pressing him with new information that contradicted his version of the affair.
German political commentators called Mr. Engholm's resignation the most difficult crisis for the Social Democrats since Helmut Schmidt, the last chancellor from their party, lost out to Mr. Kohl in 1982.
"A great blow for the party," said Hans-Ulrich Klose, parliamentary leader for the Social Democrats.
Many observers said the party's disarray threatened German political stability during a time of uneasiness about sending soldiers aboard, a flagging economy and unrest over the unification of east and west Germany.
The Social Democrats did not name a replacement immediately for Mr. Engholm as the party's candidate against Mr. Kohl in next year's elections.
Gerhard Schroeder, the president of Lower Saxony, offered himself as the party's candidate at the leadership meeting. He's said to be the likely choice, but he has no particular public following.
The resignation could not have come at a better time for Mr. Kohl. His popularity ratings are the lowest they have been since before the euphoria of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He's favored by 28 percent of voters, according to polls; Mr. Engholm had support from 30 percent. Forty-two percent of the voters wanted neither.
The fastest-growing group among German voters is the disaffected who say they won't vote at all.