Former chancellor Helmut Kohl resigned today as honorary chairman of the Christian Democratic Union, adding to the turmoil embroiling the party that for much of the country's post-World War II history has been an anchor of German political stability.
Within the past two months, as revelations of illegal donations and secret slush funds have sullied the reputations of Kohl and other party leaders, the Christian Democrats have become synonymous with sleaze. Moreover, the party seems so traumatized by the scandal that it now fears for its survival.
At a five-hour emergency meeting today, party executives rejected the resignation offer of party leader Wolfgang Schaeuble, who recently acknowledged that he accepted a $52,000 donation from an arms dealer. Instead, they turned with a vengeance on Kohl, demanding that he quit as honorary chairman of the party he has dominated for 25 years unless he reveals the identity of those who gave him $520,000 in secret campaign funds while he served as chancellor.
Since acknowledging last month that he broke the law by taking the unreported cash, Kohl has insisted that he gave his "word of honor" to the donors that he would never make their names public. Within hours of receiving the ultimatum, Kohl surrendered his party position, but he showed no willingness to clear up the mystery of who gave him the money. He also said nothing about whether he would resign his seat in Parliament.
"I do not see myself in a position to break my promise to several people who supported my work in the CDU financially," Kohl said in a statement. "The decision to relinquish the honorary chairmanship was not easy for me. I have been a member of the Christian Democratic Union for 50 years. It is and will remain my political home."
The sudden fall from grace of one of Europe's most distinguished elder statesmen has prompted a wrenching reassessment of Kohl's 16 years in power. When Kohl left office after his electoral defeat in 1998, he was held in high esteem for his historic achievements of uniting East and West Germany and persuading his compatriots to sacrifice the mark--another symbol of Germany's postwar stability--in favor of the euro, the untested European currency. Now, Kohl is disparaged as a ruthless party boss who sustained his grip on power by purchasing loyalty with bags of cash. Prosecutors are investigating whether Kohl should be charged with breach of trust for financial irregularities, and he also is the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.
Only two months ago, Kohl was honored with a standing ovation in Parliament at an event marking the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, he is reviled in German newspapers as "Don Kohleone"--a reference to the mafia-linked corruption cases in the past decade that ultimately destroyed Italy's Christian Democratic Party.
As the CDU scandal grows, some commentators are asking whether the party could suffer a similar demise. Until recently, it seemed unthinkable that the Christian Democrats could disappear or evolve into a new center-right formation. But the rapid plunge in public support for the party--and the likelihood that it will have to pay enormous penalties for the illicit donations and thus ruin its finances for years to come--has stimulated speculation about a possible realignment in German politics.
Already, the Christian Democrats are struggling with a leadership vacuum that has set off a generational revolt by young upstarts who are clamoring for the removal of those who prospered under Kohl. Yet in spurning the resignation offer of Schaeuble, who was Kohl's handpicked heir and a loyal lieutenant, party elders acknowledged there was no clear-cut successor who could command enough support to keep the party together.
"Kohl has emasculated the Christian Democrats," said Thomas Kielinger, a conservative political analyst for the newspaper Die Welt. "He controlled the party for 25 years and refused to tolerate dissent or any challenge to his authority. He destroyed any potential rivals and really operated like an authoritarian ruler. In retrospect, his long stint in power became a real threat to German democracy."
After making an impressive recovery in state elections last year, the Christian Democrats now seem headed for a free fall in public support. And their decline seems bound to accelerate as new charges of dubious funding and money-laundering emerge.
Last week, Christian Democrats in the state of Hesse acknowledged former interior minister Manfred Kanther channeled up to $7 million in campaign funds through secret accounts in Swiss banks when he was state party chairman. He later sought to conceal the nature of the funds by claiming they were bequests from Jewish donors abroad.
After owning up to the lie and conceding that he committed a serious violation even as he served as the country's minister for law enforcement, Kanther became the first political casualty by resigning his seat in Parliament. Today, the Christian Democratic leadership apologized to "our Jewish fellow citizens" for the false claims about the Hesse donations.
The tribulations of the Christian Democrats have been a political windfall for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, his ruling Social Democrats and their coalition partners, the environmentalist Greens party. Before the scandal broke, Schroeder was in perilous straits: The economy was mired in recession, his personal popularity was declining, and his control over his party's left wing seemed untenable.
But Schroeder has cautioned his supporters against rooting for the collapse of the Christian Democrats, warning that losing one of the country's two mainstream political parties would be dangerous for German democracy if it leads to increased support for extremist parties on the left or the right.
CAPTION: Christian Democratic Union leader Wolfgang Schaeuble offered to resign in the wake of the funding scandal, but the gesture was rejected at a five-hour meeting of party executives.
CAPTION: Kohl says he gave his word he would not identify cash donors.