Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
17 January 2000

They stayed too long at the top

The scandal engulfing Helmut Kohl proves that leaders should serve for shorter terms

By David Lawday

Whatever is Helmut Kohl up to? Monumental Helmut. Reunifier of Germany. Toppler of Soviet communism. Father of the euro. It is shocking to behold such a man under investigation for a suspected long-term sting that could land him in jail. Looked at dispassionately, however, there is a certain inevitability about Kohl’s plight. It is a fate he shares with too many other major European leaders of late. With Francois Mitterrand of France, Giulio Andreotti of Italy and, to an extent, Margaret Thatcher. They stayed too long at the top. Something needs to be done.

As German prosecutors inquire into the nature of Kohl’s extraordinary hold on power, a first temptation is to ask whether there isn’t something different between the British electorate and voters in Continental countries. If this is so, it must affect our approach to a future European Union government and its leadership.

For the British are on the whole rather adept at getting the rascals out. The average time in office of a British prime minister in the century just ended was precisely four years. That includes Margaret Thatcher, who ruled for a godfatherly 11-plus years. She, however, was never entirely unassailable. She never quite reached that serene stage where she could do as she liked. The nation tired of her before that was possible.

Note that Helmut Kohl, who spent 16 years as chancellor, four times elected, apparently began doing as he liked and running secret slush funds after around ten years at the top. This illustrates the gradual advance towards feeling above the democratic process. His training ground for doing things on his own over parliament’s head was reunification, when he could justifiably argue that fortune favoured the brave. Huge risks needed taking, fast. Losing time over Bundestag consultations – or consultations with Germany’s western allies, for that matter – could have meant losing the whole game. Not that, by his own account, he was entirely on his own. “You wait until you hear God’s footsteps ringing through events,” Kohl beamed at the time, quoting Bismarck, “then leap forward and hold on to His coat-tails.” Maybe Kohl believed he had a permanent hold on those coat-tails by the time funds were urgently required to reinstall his Christian Democratic Party in the turbulent former East Germany. He had to ensure he remained boss of a united land.

That, he now admits, was when he began pulling in money from unidentified donors – up to DM2 million is his estimate, though much more is plainly involved – and placing it in secret bank accounts during the 1990s to use as he wished for party contingencies.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

The Kohl system first broke into the open last autumn. Through Christian Democratic insiders’ admissions, it was established that not long after reunification the party’s treasurer, together with its chief accountant, had travelled to Switzerland to pick up DM1 million in cash stashed in a suitcase. It was handed over to them by a German arms merchant involved in a deal to sell German tanks to Saudi Arabia. Though Germany is careful about sending arms to the Middle East, the Kohl government authorised this sale.

The great man’s slide into disgrace results not so much from shady banking activities on his party’s behalf as from the inevitable questions raised over who the donors are and why they gave the money. What did they expect in return? What did they actually get in return? Court investigators are seeking the answers. Goodness knows what the notoriously profligate French oil company Elf paid on the side, and to whom, to brush past rival contenders for a major stake in the east German chemical industry.

The ex-chancellor, his parliamentary immunity from prosecution effectively lifted, is now wrecking the conservative party he ran for a quarter of a century by refusing to identify his donors. Such was his pledge, he says, and he is keeping to it. For the party’s sake, his successor as leader, Wolfgang Schauble, implores him to name names and with luck abort the judicial inquiry. Yet it is hard to imagine that Schauble and Christian Democrats who were particularly close to Kohl were unaware of the slush funds.

As Kohl loyalists and critics collide, Christian Democratic popularity ratings have sunk like a stone – much to the relief of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and his Social Democrats, suddenly buoyant once more after a spell in electoral purgatory.

It should be said for Kohl, and indeed for Mitterrand, who served 14 years as French president in consecutive seven-year terms, that neither profited in terms of personal wealth from long years of doing as they wished. The inducement to stay on top too long in Europe lies elsewhere: greed for power.

Mitterrand’s reputation sank more surely on his leaving office than Kohl’s is sinking now. Again it was the later years that brought him to grief. True, these were years in which he drove European integration forward with Kohl. But for this political mastermind, autocratic behaviour became the norm.

Cynicism engulfed his socialist presidency. Part of the reason was a wilting French economy. The Mitterrand habit of going over parliament’s head to spend billions on personally chosen architectural novelties – opera house, giant arch, national library – might charitably be seen as a potent use of presidential prerogative which at times turned out stunningly well; for example, the Louvre’s glass pyramid. But suicides among the president’s men, including that of a prime minister, left a bad taste. So did the glaring self-enrichment of many of his intimate pals.

The Godfather image sits almost as well with Mitterrand as with Italy’s Andreotti. The tiny Italian can’t be faulted on endurance: seven times prime minister over a 20-year period reaching well into the 1990s. There must have been some special quality to Andreotti’s unassailability. Astonishing charges by state prosecutors that he ruled hand in glove with the Mafia failed to stick last year. But the alarm these accusations raised had already resulted in an extraordinary execution: the elimination of the Christian Democratic Party from Italian politics.

Perhaps British voters give their leaders less time to go wrong than continental Europeans do because of their monarchy, which holds a certain power over the collective imagination. There, patience is absolute. Forgive the strained analogy, but the Queen has so far reigned three times as long as Kohl did. All the more reason for the British to be thrifty with the time they allot their political leaders.

The Germans are not by nature change-minded. No more are the French, despite myths lingering from their revolution. So if we want Europe to work as an assured democracy in the long run, it is time to change some rules. There is no guarantee that a future elected president of a unified Europe can be confined to a sensible time in office – say, two terms of four years like the American president – unless the proper examples are set in member countries now.

German chancellors are elected to four years in office. Let them be limited to two terms. That would stop huge embarrassments of the Kohl kind. Let France confine its presidents to a single seven-year term.

The prospect of Jacques Chirac seeking to carry on for 14 years, like Mitterrand, is alarming. Half of his right-wing supporters are manifestly fed up with him already. An alternative is to reduce the French presidential term to five years, once renewable – a reasonable compromise supported by every recent candidate for France’s highest office until they actually win an election, when they drop the idea cold.

Pace Thatcher, Britain should do its bit. Two five-year parliaments at the helm, then out. History suggests even a popular PM will be out before then anyway. Make the most of your second term, Tony.