WITH THE FALL of Helmut Schmidt's government, West Germany embarks on a period of party maneuvering and instability. The incoming chancellor, Helmut Kohl, is a competent and experienced politician who is unlikely to make large and sudden changes in the country's basic policies. But whether he sits firmly in the saddle is very much an open question.

The vote of no confidence and the installation of Mr. Kohl represented the climax of a long campaign of parliamentary intrigue and cleverness of a sort that German voters do not much like. Mr. Schmidt bitterly denounced his former partners, the Free Democrats, for switching sides without first going to a national election. That reproach is very likely to strike a resonance throughout the country. There was sharp division among Mr. Kohl's conservative supporters on this point, and the Free Democrats themselves split over it. All of German politics through the coming fall and winter will revolve wholly around the elections that are now scheduled for March.

The Free Democrats' stake in the timing of the elections is the stark and simple one of survival. Polls indicate that if the election were held today, the Free Democratic vote would fall below the 5 percent minimum required for representation in parliament, and the party would vanish. The Free Democrats' bargain with Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats is to provide support now and hold the election later--after they have had time, presumably, to repair their standing in the country. You are entitled to a degree of skepticism about that strategy. At the least, this bargain is a constraint on the new chancellor in his own efforts to establish himself as a figure of an authority equal to that of his predecessor.

Mr. Schmidt has been for eight years a source of strength to his country and to the alliance of the Western democracies. He has led his own country with great skill, holding its purposes steady in a time when, as in most of the Western countries, his government was being gradually eroded by the poor performance of the economy. Many Americans will recall wryly that he was never an uncritical friend. But it is not the uncritical friends who serve the alliance best.