SPD still behind in run-up to key regional vote

20th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

20 May 2005, BERLIN - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats are behind in public opinion polls ahead of state elections on Sunday, widely seen as a key test for next year's national vote where the German leader plans to seek a third term.

20 May 2005

BERLIN - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats are behind in public opinion polls ahead of state elections on Sunday, widely seen as a key test for next year's national vote where the German leader plans to seek a third term.

North Rhine-Westphalia is not only Germany's most populous state, it has also been ruled by Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) for the past 39 years.

"It's the mother of all state elections," said the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

The latest Forsa Agency shows the SPD has gained support but would still win just 36 percent, compared to 43 percent for the main opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The incumbent SPD's Greens coalition partner in North Rhine- Westphalia are at 7 percent, as are the opposition Free Democrats (FDP) who would likely join a CDU-led government.

"It will be extremely difficult for the SPD to catch up with the big lead of the CDU," said Forsa's head, Manfred Guellner.

Guellner, in comments to the Thuringia Allgemeine paper, said Schroeder's one big hope is the popularity of North Rhine-Westphalia SPD Prime Minister Peer Steinbrueck, who constantly gets higher approval ratings than the CDU candidate, Juergen Ruettgers.

A further wild-card is provided by the high number of undecided voters: 42 percent, according to Forsa.

But the Schroeder government's biggest problem is selling itself, given 12 percent nationwide unemployment - and most analysts expect the SPD-Greens coalition to be defeated on Sunday.

An SPD loss would likely lead to rising pressure on Schroeder to reverse economic and social welfare reforms - including tax cuts and reductions in jobless benefits - which have angered many traditional voters.

Plans to cut corporate taxes and to eliminate some inheritance taxes for small and medium-sized companies might have to be ditched given the Schroeder government's slim majority in the federal parliament.

Sources close to the chancellery say Schroeder does not plan a cabinet shuffle following a North Rhine-Westphalia defeat. There has been widespread speculation in the media that finance minister Hans Eichel could be forced out in the coming weeks.

The sources said Schroeder will seek re-election in Germany's general election due in autumn 2006 regardless of what happens in North Rhine-Westphalia on Sunday.

His likely challenger will be Angela Merkel, the CDU's leader who hails from eastern Germany.

DPA

Subject: German news

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