As a signal that West Germany's government crisis may be peaking, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt held a rare private meeting today with opposition leader Helmut Kohl in preparation for what a chancellory official reported would be a government statement to Parliament Friday.
During the day Schmidt also met with his senior aides and with President Karl Carstens.
The series of meetings came amid dramatic signs today of deepening bitterness and expanding rift between Social Democrats and their junior partner in the Bonn coalition, the Free Democrats.
In a debate in parliament, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the Free Democratic Party leader who is reported on the verge of jumping his party into a new government with Kohl's conservative Christian Democrats, forcefully reproached Social Democratic deputies for questioning "the will to peace and the ability to achieve peace" of other West German parties.
In a sharp admonition to left-wing members of Schmidt's party who have disputed Bonn's support of Western alliance nuclear weapon modernization plans, Genscher called on the Social Democrats to avoid ambiguity and "declare clearly your loyalty to the foreign and security policy of the government."
A Schmidt aide said the chancellor was angered by the foreign minister's remarks, which were cheered by the conservatives. Schmidt was also reported to have been dissatisfied with a statement in parliament by economics minister Otto Lambsdorff, also a Free Democrat, who refused to retract a controversial memorandum calling for a radical shift in West German economic policy and drastic welfare cuts.
Schmidt had demanded a public pledge of loyalty from Lambsdorff in a Cabinet meeting yesterday after deriding the minister's report as an unbalanced analysis that flagrantly violated existing policy. The chancellor has scheduled a private meeting with Lambsdorff Friday morning before the address to parliament.
West German television tonight speculated that Schmidt may try to force early national elections by seeking -- and losing -- a vote of confidence in the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament.
Although opinion surveys show that Schmidt's Social Democrats would lose badly in a national vote, the chancellor may decide it is better to call for elections now, when he could still campaign at least as the head of a minority government. To wait would run the risk of handing the opposition the opportunity to oust him, form a new center-right government, and then arrange for new elections that would afford the opposition the high ground politically.
On the other hand, to force the election issue would pose the danger for Schmidt that the opposition would undercut him by rushing a new chancellor into office following his loss of a no-confidence vote. The German Constitution provides for a 21-day lapse between the time a sitting chancellor loses such a vote and the Bundestag is dissolved in anticipation of new elections.
Early elections pose a tremendous risk for the Free Democrats. National polls lately show the party just barely drawing the 5 percent required for representation in parliament. West German television this evening reported that Kohl had pledged at a secret meeting with Genscher yesterday that the opposition leader would block any attempt to force new elections.
But Franz Josef Strauss, head of the Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democrats, is known to favor a solution that would preclude any future coalition with the Free Democrats. Early new elections could serve that purpose by delivering to the conservatives an absolute majority, which surveys suggest they would get.