Kohl awarded medal on his last day as chancellor

 

Outgoing chancellor Dr Helmut Kohl (right) tries to find his seat in the German parliament in Bonn yesterday.

Dr Helmut Kohl spent his last day as Germany's chancellor yesterday after 16 years in office, as a new, left-leaning Bundestag convened for the first time.

Almost a month after his election defeat at the hands of the Social Democratic leader, Mr Gerhard Schroder, Dr Kohl received a letter of discharge from the President, Mr Roman Herzog.

The outgoing chancellor was awarded the Grand Cross, the highest rank of Germany's Federal Service Medal, an honour given to none of his predecessors except Konrad Adenauer, Germany's first post-war chancellor.

Accepting the award, Dr Kohl said his political life was driven by the twin dreams of German and European unity but that he never imagined he would realise them during his period in office. "German unification was always just a slogan for some, but I always believed in the vision," he said.

Dr Kohl (68) will share the chancellor's official bungalow with Mr Schroder until the new chancellor moves to Berlin next spring.

Dr Kohl will also remain a Christian Democratic deputy in the newly constituted Bundestag, which is dominated by the parties of the left.

An eastern Social Democrat, Mr Wolfgang Thierse, was elected unopposed as Bundestag president, the parliament's speaker.

The Bundestag is expected to elect Mr Schroder as Chancellor at 11 a.m. today and he will be sworn in, along with the rest of the cabinet, an hour later.

Three ministers in the new government will be members of the environmentalist Greens, including the foreign minister, Mr Joschka Fischer. But the coalition will be dominated by the Social Democrats, particularly by their chairman, Mr Oskar Lafontaine, who is the new finance minister.

Mr Schroder attempted yesterday to crush speculation that Mr Lafontaine represents a threat to his authority and that the new coalition's programme for government is dominated by the SPD chairman's ideas.

"The constitution states quite clearly that the chancellor determines the guiding principles of policy. That must happen within the framework of the coalition agreement. There is nothing in the agreement which I would not have agreed to," he told the weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel.

Mr Schroder and Mr Lafontaine put aside their long-standing rivalry during the election campaign and many political observers are predicting a power struggle between the two men. Mr Schroder's image is of a business-friendly politician of the centre, whereas Mr Lafontaine unashamedly advocates the redistribution of wealth and relishes his frequent confrontations with employers' representatives.

Business leaders have been highly critical of the new government's plans, which include higher energy taxes, better protection for workers and the closure of all Germany's nuclear power stations. Mr Schroder insisted yesterday that his influence ensured that many radical proposals were not included in the programme for government and he predicted that his partnership with Mr Lafontaine would continue to flourish.

Mr Schroder will lead the nation through historic changes: not only the government's return to Berlin, but also the debut of Europe's single currency, the euro, in January.

"Marriages of convenience often last longest," said Mr Schroder, who has himself been married four times.