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Hamburg state election turnsinto a neck-and-neck race

27 February 2004

HAMBURG – Germany’s coalition parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, are running neck-and-neck with the Christian Democrats (CDU) two days ahead of elections in the northern city-state of Hamburg, a leading opinion poll showed Friday.

In a lift for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a Forsa survey shows his SPD up a point to 30 percent of the vote, with the Greens at 14 percent, giving a total of 44 percent for the red-green coalition.

Meanwhile the centre-right CDU, which a week ago was running at 47 percent in a poll by the Mannheim research group Wahlen, has dropped to 44 percent, leaving the outcome of Sunday’s poll wide open.

The CDU is the main opposition party at national level but has ruled Germany’s second largest city in a three-way coalition since September 2001.

The Hamburg elections, called after the collapse of the state government in December, are the first in a super election year for Germany, with 13 more to follow at European, regional and local level by September.

It is the first test at the ballot box for Schroeder of his agenda of welfare, labour and tax reforms which have led to widespread protests and disaffection among traditional SPD voters.

Political commentators say Hamburg will be a bellwether for the coalition government whose popularity has slumped since narrow re-election in September 2002.

The election is also the first since Schroeder announced earlier this month he was stepping down as party chief, leaving parliamentary leader Franz Muentefering to quell dissent within SPD ranks.

The Forsa poll, for the weekly magazine Stern, shows that both the liberal Free Democrats and the rightwing pro DM/Schill party running at 4 percent – just under the 5 percent of votes needed to gain a place in the local parliament.

The make-up of the future Hamburg senate will depend on whether either or both these two parties cross the 5 percent hurdle.

Beust discounted Friday the prospect of a coalition between the CDU and the Greens as “very, very unlikely” but said a grand coalition with the SPD was a possibility but “only as a last resort”.

“If a coalition is needed then the FDP is the partner of choice,” he said.

Beust this week pulled out of a planned television duel with SPD candidate, Thomas Mirow, after taking umbrage at comments made in a young socialist election leaflet, a move which appears to have cost him some voter sympathy.

The Forsa poll showed 48 percent of the voters would choose Beust in a direct vote, a considerable 7 percentage points down on a week ago. Support for Mirow has meanwhile risen by 4 percentage points to 30 percent.

Despite the late opinion poll encouragement for the SPD, the party appears to be heading for its worst result in Hamburg since World War II.

The SPD ruled Hamburg for 44 years until elections in September 2001 when it had the larger share of the votes (36.5 percent) but lost out to a three-way coalition of CDU (26.2 percent), FDP (5.1 percent) and the Party of the Offensive for the Rule of Law (19.4 percent), led by the controversial former judge Ronald Schill.

The coalition collapsed late last year after Beust sacked Schill as interior minister, and the Law and Order party became embroiled in bitter in-fighting which led to Schill being ousted.

The party – popularly known as the Schill Party – had emerged from nowhere in the 2001 election, but the faction is now split and its popularity dimished. Without Schill, its share of vote is not expected to be much above 1 percent.

Pollsters say that with many undecided voters there is still a possibility the Pro DM/Schill, the party hastily formed by Schill to contest the elections, could gain enough votes for a place in parliament.

However, Beust has categorically rejected any coalition with Schill’s new party.


Subject: German news