As expected, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl this week won the first free elections in united Germany since 1932. In fact, anything other than his landslide victory would have been astonishing. But now comes the hard part: fully integrating the country and rebuilding the shattered economy of former communist-run East Germany.

Most of the voters in East Germany allied themselves with existing parties in the West, although the ousted Communist Party - now renamed the Party for Democratic Socialism - did get 2.4 percent of the ballots nationwide, most of it in the East.And the people's movement that had helped topple the communist regime formed a group called Alliance 90. It was joined by the Western-based Greens, a far-left, ecology-centered political movement. But the combined group only gathered about 5 percent of the national vote, also most of it in the East.

Kohl, once a lightly regarded politician, has been highly popular since he seized the German reunification issue from the moment the Berlin Wall went down. He ran with it at a pace that left the World War II occupying powers gasping in his wake. From the fall of the wall to a reunified, freely elected Germany was barely a year.

In his drive toward one Germany, Kohl dismissed the cost of rebuilding a bankrupt and dilapidated East Germany. First things first, and reunification was the primary goal. The German people seem to agree. Other political parties that criticized the rapid pace of reunification and questioned the economic cost were badly beaten in the election.

But now Kohl must squarely face those costs. He plans to borrow up to $100 billion next year to finance reunification and concedes that difficult times lie ahead. Former East Germany must be built from the ground up. Unemployment is high and rising. One in three workers may be out of a job within months. On Jan. 1, former communist subsidies that kept rents, energy costs and mass transit fees low will be lifted.

Despite this, Kohl is optimistic. He predicts that in four years, prosperity will exist across all of Germany.

That may be overly ambitious. But given the remarkable things that have happened the past year with Kohl at the helm, he may pull it off. And even if it doesn't happen as quickly as four years, there is little question that the hard-working German people eventually will fully integrate what was once East Germany into their prosperous lifestyle.