Schroeder SPD disasterin regional election
6 September 2004, SAARBRUECKEN - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats suffered a regional election disaster Sunday in the first test at the polls after weeks of protest over the government's controversial cuts to social welfare benefits. The Christian Democrats (CDU) - Berlin's main opposition party - were returned to power in the Saar state after winning 47.5 percent, according to preliminary official results. Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) scraped in with just 30.8 percent - a decline of a
6 September 2004
SAARBRUECKEN - Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats suffered a regional election disaster Sunday in the first test at the polls after weeks of protest over the government's controversial cuts to social welfare benefits.
The Christian Democrats (CDU) - Berlin's main opposition party - were returned to power in the Saar state after winning 47.5 percent, according to preliminary official results.
Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) scraped in with just 30.8 percent - a decline of almost 14 percentage points over the last election five years ago.
"This is a defeat - and a bitter one," said Heiko Maas, the candidate from Schroeder's SPD, adding that the party's unpopularity at the national level, where it hit historic lows earlier this year, had badly harmed his chances.
In a jab at Chancellor Schroeder, Maas said: "I had to hold up my head for a lot of stuff I did not dream up."
The Greens - Schroeder's junior coalition partner in Berlin - will enter the state parliament after winning 5.6 percent of the Saar vote and the pro-business Free Democrats will also get seats with 5.2 percent.
The far-right, anti-foreigner NPD won 4 percent and thus failed to clear the five percent hurdle required to win seats under German election law.
But the NPD's good showing still shocked many observers with exit polls by Germany's ZDF public TV showing most of the far-right party's voters being former supporters of Schroeder's SPD from either the working class or the ranks of the unemployed.
The Saar election results mean the state's CDU Premier Peter Mueller returns to office with his absolute majority intact. Mueller took power five years ago after a slim victory when the CDU ousted the ruling SPD by taking 45.5 percent, compared to 44.4 percent.
The CDU is Germany's key opposition force in Berlin and the Saar vote is a slap in the face for Schroeder given that national issues played a major role in a state which in the 1980s and 90s was an SPD stronghold.
Elections in the Saar came after repeated mass demonstrations over the Schroeder government's planned cuts to jobless benefits. Trimming back Germany's relatively generous welfare state has eroded support for the SPD among traditional left-wing voters and fueled weekly protests which last Monday drew 70,000 people, mainly in depressed eastern Germany.
Pointing to the impact Schroeder's policies on the election, Mueller noted: "We are in a situation where many people are worried." Reforms are needed in Germany but they must be better planned and better explained, he added.
The German economy is emerging from three years of stagnation and unemployment remains stuck at over 10 per cent nationwide and close to 20 per cent in hard hit east.
Angry SPD leaders said a further reason for their debacle in the Saar election was former SPD chairman and leftist firebrand Oskar Lafontaine who briefly served under Schroeder as finance minister before resigning in anger over government policy.
Lafontaine, who ruled the Saar as its premier for over a decade, has since become a bitter critic of Schroeder and his support for the possible creation of a new left-leaning party damaged the SPD in the Saar election, said Maas.
"Lafontaine must decide if he wants to work with us in the SPD or outside the party," demanded Maas in TV interviews following his defeat.
Schroeder's only comfort is that the Saar is a tiny state with just 818,000 voters and a troubled legacy of coal and steel tucked along the borders of France and Luxembourg.
But the results continue a worrying trend of the SPD being thrashed in regional votes this year and are a grim omen for three more key elections to be held this month.
In Brandenburg, some polls show the former East German communists - the Party of Democratic Socialism - have overtaken the SPD to lead with the CDU trailing in third place.
Meanwhile, in Saxony the ruling CDU may lose its majority but polls give the SPD scant chances of taking control of the state.
Voters in both Brandenburg and Saxony go to the polls on 19 September.
The bigger worry are local elections on September 26 in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. An SPD defeat here could pave the way for the SPD state government to be tossed out of office in state elections next 22 May.
This would be a disaster for Schroeder because it would give the Christian Democratic alliance a two-thirds majority in the upper house in Berlin - the Bundesrat - where it could block all federal government legislation.
There is speculation a defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia could prompt Schroeder to resign in advance of Germany's planned next general election in 2006.
But some analysts suggest the Chancellor would stay on to 2006, helped by differences among the Christian Democratic ruled Laender or federal states and between the CDU and its arch-conservative Bavarian wing, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Subject: German news