Schleswig-Holstein electionsa test for mainstream parties

17th February 2005, Comments 0 comments

17 February 2005 , KIEL - Germany's northernmost state of Schleswig- Holstein takes centre stage on Sunday as a testing ground for the country's mainstream political parties. For different reasons, the elections for a new state parliament could provide some answers to questions troubling the Social Democrats (SPD), Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Greens parties. For the SPD, the question is whether the party really is now back on the comeback trail after soaring unemployment and unpopular social welf

17 February 2005 

KIEL - Germany's northernmost state of Schleswig- Holstein takes centre stage on Sunday as a testing ground for the country's mainstream political parties.

For different reasons, the elections for a new state parliament could provide some  answers to questions troubling the Social Democrats (SPD), Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Greens parties.

For the SPD, the question is whether the party really is now back on the comeback trail after soaring unemployment and unpopular social welfare reforms had sent its popularity ratings plunging, reflected in stinging defeats in three state elections in 2004.

For the CDU, the issue is whether it can regain the initiative it had lost in the second half of 2004. After long being well ahead of the SPD of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in opinion polls, the CDU began stumbling badly amid internal party squabbles, raising questions about Angela Merkel's stewardship.

The Greens meanwhile find their own fortunes laced with uncertainty amid the negative headlines surrounding Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in a widening probe about irregularities in the issuance of tourism visas by German embassies. Will the bad publicity about visas in the Ukraine translate into voting losses in Kiel?

Opinion polls in Schleswig-Holstein, with its population of 2.8 million, including 2.2 million eligible voters, point to a neck-and- neck race, but with a slight edge for the SPD-Greens coalition.

The SPD has been in power in the mainly agricultural state since 1988 and in coalition with the Greens since 1996. The party's main trump card is popular Premier Heide Simonis - the first and so far only woman to lead a German state.

If popularity were the only issue, then Simonis should be the clear winner on Sunday. A ZDF television poll showed 57 percent of the state's voters preferred her over her CDU challenger, Peter Harry Carstensen, backed by just 30 percent.

Simonis, 61, has been in charge since 1993. A forceful personality known at times for her biting criticism - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder once admitted "you can start to shake when you're on the telephone with her" - Simonis has been skilful in maintaining strict discipline in the state's SPD.

Her opponent Carsten, 57, is an unassuming politician little-known beyond Schleswig-Holstein's borders, only gaining the headlines the past few months amid internal criticism in his own CDU for the way he managed the party's preparations for the election.

Few issues are at stake in the smallest of Germany's 16 states - nestled between the North Sea and Baltic Sea.

Unemployment - the issue on which the opposition has kept the Berlin government under the most pressure with - is not a burning question. Measured at 12.7 percent in January, joblessness is just barely above the national average.

While the focus will be on the mainstream parties on Sunday, political analysts will also be closely watching how the extreme rightwing NPD party fares.

In September 2004, the party grabbed 9.2 percent of the vote in the elections in the eastern German state of Saxony, sending shockwaves through the political establishment.

The NPD has since then triggered scandals by refusing to take part in ceremonies to pay tribute to the victims of Nazism, and by comparing the Allied bombing of Dresden to the Holocaust.

Many people have attributed the NPD's success in Saxony to the state's crushing unemployment of almost 20 percent. But if the NPD were to make major gains in Schleswig-Holstein with its much lower unemployment, then other answers will have to be found. In the last Schleswig-Holstein elections in 2000, the NPD got just 1 percent.

DPA

Subject: German news

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