SPD trails opposition in run-up to crunch election
18 May 2005, BERLIN - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats trail opposition conservatives in the run-up to Sunday's elections in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, which has been ruled by the SPD for the past 39 years.
18 May 2005
BERLIN - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats trail opposition conservatives in the run-up to Sunday's elections in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, which has been ruled by the SPD for the past 39 years.
Defeat for Schroeder's party could trigger a political earthquake in Berlin and fuel battles over new directions for SPD to restore its fortunes. It would also badly damage the Chancellor's bid to win a third term in next year's national elections, analysts say.
North Rhine-Westphalia is crucial for a series of reasons, not least because its government is the last copy in any of Germany's 16 Laender (federal states) of the SPD-Greens coalition which rules in Berlin.
Voters tossed out such 'Red-Green' governments in a number of states, including Schleswig-Holstein, earlier this year. The ousting of North Rhine-Westphalia's government would be seen by many as the beginning of the end for Schroeder.
The state, which is home to the industrial Ruhr Valley, also has massive symbolic power for SPD as a centre of its traditional working class constituency. If Schroeder can't win here, then his party's chances at the national level are severely reduced.
Size alone makes North Rhine-Westphalia a bellwether for Germany. With a population of 16.7 million, the state would be the seventh biggest member of the 25-nation European Union if it were an independent country.
Schroeder's biggest problem is that SPD voters are angry with his government for near record unemployment of 12 percent, with 4.9 million people jobless.
"Red-Green is the coalition of mass unemployment," said the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) candidate, Juergen Ruettgers, in a TV debate on Tuesday with the state's incumbent SPD Premier Peer Steinbrueck.
There is huge opposition among many SPD backers to government cuts in social welfare spending, tougher regulations for unemployment benefits and corporate tax reductions.
Complicating the SPD's problems is that Steinbrueck hails from the moderate, pro-business wing of the party. He is also not a native in the state and still speaks with a light accent betraying his northern German roots in Hamburg.
The CDU's Ruettgers, meanwhile, was not only born and raised in the main North Rhine-Westphalian city of Cologne, but is also on the left-leaning fringe of the CDU and vows no further social welfare cuts.
Ruettgers promises to bring about an upswing by cutting state spending, reducing bureaucracy and increasing working hours to boost productivity.
Getting out the vote will be tough for the SPD with many polls predicting turnout on Sunday will be low.
Seeking to rally the party, SPD chairman Franz Muentefering has launched a controversial campaign which dubs foreign, and especially American, investors as an unwelcome plague of "locusts". This move echoes Chancellor Schroeder's massive use of his anti-Iraq war stance to help squeeze out a narrow re-election victory in 2002.
While there has been a tightening in polls over the past week, the final projections have the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) and their liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) ally well ahead of the SPD-Greens.
An Infratest-Dimap agency poll gave the opposition CDU 43 percent and the FDP 7.5 percent.
In contrast, Schroeder's SPD would get 37 percent and the Greens 7.5 percent. Worryingly for the Chancellor, the Greens vote appears to have been hit by an ongoing Ukrainian visa scandal swirling around Greens politician Joschka Fischer.
Schroeder only won re-election in 2002 because of strong support for the Greens. But backing for the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia has crumbled by up to two percentage points in the past weeks, polls show.
Gloom over SPD chances is widespread and media reports say Chancellor Schroeder has already written off the election.
"Many SPD voters are dominated by nostalgia for the good old SPD of the 1970s - this party has nothing more to do with the 21st century," complained Carina Goedecke, the SPD candidate for North Rhine-Westphalia's 107th election district.
Subject: German news