After Kohl, the deluge

The former Chancellor's silence on the source of illegal funds has put his party into freefall, says Denis Staunton in Berlin
German corruption scandal: special report

Helmut Kohl moved through his cheering supporters in Bremen on Friday night like a hero returned from battle, stopping here and there to grasp a hand or exchange a warm word. When he reached the platform, the 4,000-strong gathering of Christian Democrat activists clapped, cheered and roared their approval of the man who had resigned in disgrace as their honorary chairman three days earlier.

Watching Kohl soak up the adulation, it was hard to believe that he is under criminal investigation for accepting illegal donations to party funds and channelling them through a web of secret accounts and that his political career has ended in humiliation. Earlier that day, his own party confirmed that it is considering taking legal action against the former Chancellor to force him to identify the anonymous donors who gave so generously while he was in office.

'If there is one thing I have always been incapable of, it is being a saint and presenting myself as a saint,' Kohl told his admirers. 'But when I see who is standing up now and striking moral attitudes, I have to tell you that I find it hard to bear.'

There was no doubt among the audience about the target of Kohl's barb - his successor as party leader and long-time political associate, Wolfgang Schäuble, who has now become his bitterest enemy.

When Schäuble, paralysed from the waist down since an assassination attempt in 1991, rolled his wheelchair through the door of Kohl's office on Berlin's Unter den Linden last Tuesday, he knew he was on a mission without hope. He asked Kohl to identify publicly the donors of up to two million marks (£660,000) the former Chancellor has admitted accepting in cash during his last five years in office. Forty minutes later, after an encounter aides described as 'very noisy', a grim-faced Schäuble left for a meeting of his party's 43-strong leadership executive to offer his resignation as leader.

Faced with a scandal that brings new revelations almost every day and is threatening to destroy the party that has governed Germany for most of its postwar history, the leadership backed Schäuble and forced Kohl out of his position as honorary chairman.

But as Friday's performance in Bremen made clear, Kohl is far from giving up the fight to save his reputation and is confident that he will see off the new party leadership whom he views as incompetent, disloyal upstarts.

While Kohl was relishing the limelight in Bremen, Marion Huellen was comforting her two teenage sons at their little house in Bonn following the suicide of their father. Wolfgang Huellen, who was in charge of the finances of the Christian Democrats' parliamentary party, hanged himself at his Berlin flat last Thursday. He left a note indicating he was afraid a parliamentary inquiry into party finances would uncover his own irregularities and police began an investigation into whether he may have been stealing from party funds.

Huellen's death was the most macabre twist in an unfolding scandal that has revealed to a bewildered German public a picture of their government accepting suitcases full of cash from arms dealers, laundering money through Swiss banks and adopting business practices more usually associated with the Mafia. But amid the fast-moving drama, one factor has remained constant since the scandal broke last November - Kohl's silence about the source of his illegal funds.

He claims he promised donors they would remain anonymous and he is not prepared to break his word. 'I have never in my life abandoned my honour and I will not do it now either,' he told an appreciative audience of Hamburg businessmen last week. His lawyers are understood to have advised him that, despite the criminal investigation, he is in little danger of being prosecuted on what is already known.

Some commentators have suggested that one reason Kohl will not name the donors is because they did not exist. They suggest that the money may have come from secret accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein used by the CDU to disguise the origin of illegal donations.

THE PARTY IN HESSE has admitted it made regular transfers from a Swiss account, disguising the money as bequests from CDU supporters. In a tasteless twist, the party claimed these non-existent supporters were Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Hesse's Prime Minister, Roland Koch, a cold-blooded careerist, admitted on Friday that four million marks in the party's Swiss account is missing. 'I hope none of you think I'm making a personal admission of guilt,' he added hastily. Most worrying for Kohl is an investigation by Geneva prosecutors into an alleged 85m marks in bribes paid by the French oil company Elf Aquitaine in connection with its purchase of an eastern German oil refinery in the early 1990s. Prosecutors last week froze accounts held in Liechtenstein by Dieter Holzer, a lobbyist with close links to Kohl, and they are investigating some of the former Chancellor's most trusted associates.

Kohl denies being bribed by Elf Aquitaine and insists that donations to party funds never influenced government policy, but files relating to the oil refinery sale disappeared mysteriously from the Chancellery before he left office.

The Christian Democrats are bracing themselves for fresh revelations today when an auditor's report on the party's finances is published, but many activists fear that the real danger to the party's future lies in its breach with its former patriarch. Kohl is convinced Schäuble has mishandled the funding scandal by making too many confessions too soon and he appears determined to destroy his successor's leadership. A meeting in Munich last week with media baron Leo Kirch has ensured that the powerful Springer group of newspapers is training as much fire on Schäuble as on Kohl. Some in Kohl's circle believe that many former loyalists will return to Kohl's banner.

Many German commentators fear that the Christian Democrats, who have seen their popular support fall by 11 per cent in recent weeks, could disappear from the political map altogether.

In Schleswig-Holstein, where the party hoped to win an election next month, activists complain that passers-by are routinely barking abuse at them. As one young activist put it: 'Sometimes I think I'm going to wake up and find it was all a horrible dream.'

Denis Staunton writes for the 'Irish Times'

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