Science Looms Large In German Elections

FRANKFURT—"If it weren't for all those chemical accidents, we'd have an easy time with this election,"

By | January 12, 1987

FRANKFURT—"If it weren't for all those chemical accidents, we'd have an easy time with this election," Helmut Kohl remarked in early December.

The West German chancellor was responding to a poll that showed environmental issues had passed unemployment, the general economy, and other subjects as the principal issue in the January 25 election. But only 26 percent thought Kohl's party, the conservative, business-oriented Christian Democrats (CDU), was best equipped to deal with it, compared with 34 percent who trusted the Greens and only 21 percent who favored the Social Democrats (SPD).

Kohl appointed his old friend and ally Walter Wallmann, former mayor of Frankfurt and more recently federal environmental minister, to lead a new ministry to bolster public confidence in the government's ability to cope with such technological accidents as Chernobyl and the Rhine spills.

Wallmann announced in November he would seek "drastic curbs" on chemical production "before the end of the current legislature period" last month. The time was too short for such action, however, which was viewed with alarm by the chemical industry.

What did happen was a series of verbal swipes at the chemicals sector and a promise—or threat, depending on the attitude of the observer—of other concrete measures later.

A new CDU-led administration, Wallmann said, would consider banning production or imports of certain toxic chemicals and would extend the accident reporting regulation to additional process plants. An outside monitoring system would be established to watch over chemical production and storage. The fact that the chemical industry was particularly disturbed by only one proposal—a threat to remove its representatives from the accident review board—led SPD and Green officials to complain that the CDU was still too soft on industry. The Greens repeated earlier calls for a "complete restructurization" of industry toward "gentler" products.

Although most polls have shown Kohl's CDU to be far ahead of its nearest rival, the internally divided SPD, the constant barbs from the Green side of the political spectrum worry the chancellor. Should SPD rival Johannes Rau back down from his pledge not to form a coalition with the Greens at the national level, as fellow party member Holger Bonier did in the state of Hesse two years ago, the consequences for the CDU could be dire. Hesse now has a Green environmental minister, Josef Fischer.

With the CDU certain to remain Germany's strongest political party and the SPD expected to suffer further losses, the most likely change in the political scene could come from a failure of Kohl's coalition partner, the neoliberal FDP, to win the 5 percent of the vote required for representation in the Bundestag, the federal parliament. Some polls give the Greens as much as 11 percent of the vote.

Whatever the outcome of the elections environmental issues will continue to play an important role in West German politics.

Dede Williams is a freelance science writer in Frankfurt, West Germany.

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