BONN, Germany -- Germany turned to a new political generation last night as Gerhard Schroeder and the Social Democratic Party triumphed in parliamentary elections to end the 16-year reign of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Promising to boost the economy and solve the plight of Germany's jobless, the 54-year-old Schroeder won the right to forge a ruling parliamentary coalition and become Germany's first chancellor raised in the post-World War II era.
"The voters have decided who should lead the country into the future," Schroeder told jubilant supporters. "Our task lies in modernizing our country.
"We set our stakes on the new center," Schroeder added. "Our concept was right. I am for economic development and stability, inner security and in foreign policy, continuity. Above all else, I will battle the unemployment."
Schroeder also made history by toppling Kohl, 68, who was bidding for a record fifth term but instead became the first sitting chancellor since the war ousted by the vote of the people.
Kohl, Europe's longest-serving leader and a staunch Washington ally, said he will step down as leader of his party, the Christian Democratic Union, and, in an emotional speech to supporters, acknowledged it "was a difficult night for me."
Later, in a dignified televised panel discussion among party leaders, Kohl said, "We have lost the election. I was the top candidate. I am taking responsibility for the defeat."
Schroeder's Social Democrats secured 41.2 percent of the vote for Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, according to television projections.
Kohl's Christian Democrats and their Bavarian partners, the Christian Social Union, claimed 35 percent.
The key now is which party Schroeder will go into partnership with to gain a majority of the 656 seats in parliament and form a ruling coalition. The Greens, an ecological party and the Social Democrats' natural partner, secured 6.7 percent of the vote, which would give Schroeder a small working majority.
Such a "Red-Green" coalition has never been tried since postwar Germany was established in 1949 and it would mark a major departure. The Greens have called for a review of Germany's NATO membership, causing concern in Washington.
Voter surveys indicated the majority of Germans would prefer Schroeder to preside over a "Grand Coalition" with the Christian Democrats, but Kohl's party has shown little interest in that arrangement.
Schroeder refused to show his hand last night but said he needs "a stable majority." He did rule out working with the Democratic Socialists, the old communists from East Germany, who kept their foothold in Parliament.
Meanwhile, the battle for leadership among Kohl's Christian Democrats has begun. The favorite to replace Kohl is Wolfgang Schaueble, the party's popular parliamentary leader.
In turning out Kohl, the German people turned another page in their history.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was Kohl who presided over the unification of the democratic west and the communist-backed east. He also worked tirelessly to bolster the European Union and create the euro currency that will economically tie together the continent.
But in recent years, as unemployment soared to post-war highs of more than 4 million people and the costs of unification climbed, Kohl was viewed by many as out of touch on domestic issues and more concerned with fashioning his reputation as a world statesman.
Down by double digits in early polls, Kohl fought back doggedly and appeared within striking distance heading into the final weekend.
"We had a great gift given by the voters of our country to make an important contribution" over 16 years, Kohl said.
"It was a great time," he concluded, in what amounted to his farewell speech as a world leader.
In the end, the country's often cautious voters took a chance on Schroeder, a telegenic candidate who has been dubbed Germany's Clinton. Raised by his war widow mother, Schroeder overcame an impoverished childhood, got a high school degree by going to night classes, and worked his way through college.
Politically, he's left of center and talks more in generalities than in specifics. Yet his victory completes the leftward tilt in Europe's major capitals, as he follows in the footsteps of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French premier Lionel Jospin.
"It's a new era opening up," Blair said last night. "We will do what we can to create a Europe that is prosperous, that is a highly competitive modern economy but combines that with strong levels of social justice."
President Clinton said he looked forward to working closely with Schroeder.
"Germany is one of America's closest allies. As always, our two governments will be fully engaged in a comprehensive policy agenda," the president said in a statement issued in San Antonio, Texas, where he was on a political trip.
Clinton also thanked Kohl for the "historic contributions to the unity of his nation, the strength of our Euro-Atlantic community and to peace throughout the world."
Schroeder had to overcome obstacles to make his final leap to power. As the prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony, Schroeder presided over an area with high unemployment and shaky government finances that forced cuts in job training, education and community programs. Moreover, Schroeder was
forced to deal with a fractious party that was dominated by left-wing labor unions and headed by a strong-willed leader, Oskar Lafontaine.
Yet it was Lafontaine who kept the party ranks together and stepped up the attack on Kohl's leadership.
"The Kohl government showed traces of wear and tear," Lafontaine said in an interview. "Schroeder made a good campaign. The voters wanted a new start."
They chose a leader of ever-changing ideals and aspirations. Schroeder, a one-time student Marxist, has moved to the political center by courting big business and promising to maintain Germany's strong ties to the United States and NATO.
Schroeder said in a television interview that his success was based on "a reasonable program, a united party and a candidate that fit this. It will be important to maintain this triple setup."
He promised that under his leadership, "Germany will become socially more just and fair." He also paid his respects to Kohl, calling him "a really hard opponent whose achievement for Germany will stand."
During his four-year term, Schroeder will oversee the end of Germany's beloved Deutschmark, a symbol of stability and economic might, and its replacement with the euro, which will begin circulating next year. He will also lead the German government back to Berlin for the first time since Hitler's Third Reich.
Most important in a nation ravaged by historic levels of joblessness, Schroeder must begin to put people back to work -- particularly in the long-suffering states of the formerly communist east.
"My main duty is to fight unemployment," Schroeder vowed yesterday. "The government, the trade unions and the employers cannot withdraw from this task. In the new states of the east, I promise to improve their living standards and return."
Pub Date: 9/28/98