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Presidential Vote Sets Course For Kohl’s Coalition With AM-Germany-President-Thumbnails

May 22, 1994

BONN, Germany (AP) _ A 1,324-member assembly gathers Monday to choose Germany’s next president, an office Chancellor Helmut Kohl needs to control to keep himself on the path toward reelection.

Roman Herzog, Kohl’s nominee and president of Germany’s supreme court, is favored to win. If he loses, Kohl’s coalition might fall apart or be weakened heading into the Oct. 16 general elections.

Kohl nominated Herzog after his earlier nominee, an East German state official named Steffan Heitmann, was forced to withdraw after making statements some women, Jews and immigrants found offensive.

Many Germans believe Johannes Rau, the jovial Social Democratic governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, is the better candidate to step into the shoes of the aristocrat Richard von Weizsaecker, 74, who leaves office July 1 after two five-year terms. In public opinion polls, which have no direct bearing on Monday’s vote, Rau scores far ahead of Herzog.

In the tradition of postwar Germany, the president has generally been a moral leader who pulls Germans together, while the chancellor sets the political agenda.

Kohl, for example, has never visited a victim of the right-wing violence that has washed across the land since reunification in 1990.

Weizsaecker, who has urged Germans to be mindful of their historic responsibility to counter fascism, spoke last June at the funeral of five Turks killed in a rightist arson attack.

The assembly that will choose Weizsaecker’s successor includes the 662 members of Parliament and 662 delegates chosen by the legislatures of the 16 German states. Some of the latter are athletes, scientists and business people with no party affiliation. The vote is secret. Although the assembly is dominated by Christian Democrats or delegates chosen by the party, they are not bound to vote for Herzog - and it isn’t clear they all will.

The Free Democrats, Kohl’s centrist coalition partners, are fielding 72- year-old Hildegard Hamm-Bruecher, a former World War II resistance member and legislator. The leftist Greens support Jens Reich, a 55-year-old biologist and former East German dissident.

Reich and Hamm-Bruecher have said they will withdraw after the first two rounds of voting, in which an absolute majority is needed to win. In the third round, the candidate with the most votes wins - Herzog or Rau.

In the absence of a strong East German candidate, delegates from the six eastern states might prefer Rau to Herzog because of Rau’s more conciliatory tone, some East German Christian Democrats have said.

But the biggest question mark is the behavior of the Free Democrats once Hamm-Bruecher pulls out.

The Free Democrats, a small pro-business party, are the gadflies of German politics, flitting, since 1949, between coalitions with the conservative Christian Democrats and the left-leaning Social Democrats.

The Free Democrats are under no obligation to vote for Herzog, said Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, the Free Democrats’ leader, in an interview in Sunday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Two prominent Free Democrats in Parliament have announced they will vote for Rau.

Kohl’s ability to hold the coalition together has been helped by polls this month showing him to have pulled even with Rudolf Scharping, the Social Democratic candidate in the October election, after trailing him badly a few months ago.

The Reichstag, where Monday’s vote will be held, was the site of the German parliament before 1933, when Hitler used its destruction in a fire as a pretext to declare martial law. The building is to become Germany’s parliament again by 2000.