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Schroeder rules out cabinet reshuffle

Published on 01/03/2004

1 March 2004

BERLIN – Embattled German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder Monday rejected speculation that he plans to shuffle his cabinet in the wake of Sunday’s election debacle for his Social Democratic Party in the city-state of Hamburg.

Schroeder issued a statement via a spokesman saying he would press forward with unpopular budget austerity reforms and had no intention of making personnel changes in his government.

Except to say that the SPD had “suffered a painful loss”, he shied away from issuing any public response to the historic loss, which saw the SPD plummet to a post-war low in Hamburg, a traditional Social Democratic stronghold.

In an historic election outcome, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came away Sunday with an outright majority in Hamburg in what was the first of 14 strategic state elections to be held in Germany this year.

The CDU, riding the popularity of Hamburg mayor Ole von Beust, 48, won 47 percent of the vote to gain 64 seats in the 121-seat Hamburg parliament, making it the first time ever that the party will have absolute power in the erstwhile Social Democratic (SPD) bastion.

Even worse for Schroeder and the SPD, the CDU-CSU now has absolute majorities in six of Germany’s 16 states and coalitions in enough of the others to cement a solid majority in the Bundesrat upper house of the German parliament.

That means any legislation enacted by Schroeder’s centre-left government in the Bundestag lower house will have to be ratified by the opposition-controlled Bundesrat.

Scenting victory after Schroeder’s crushing defeat, CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel said Sunday’s election likely heralded a series of losses for the SPD this year.

“This win demonstrates that the CDU can win anywhere in Germany,” Merkel said at a news conference Monday with triumphant Hamburg Mayor von Beust. “If we can win in Hamburg, we can win anywhere, any time.”

“This is an excellent start to what is certain to be an excellent election year for the CDU,” she added.

The CDU’s result was a good 20 percentage points higher than its showing in the September 2001 election, when the party rode to power in a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the law-and- order party, Offensive for the Rule of Law.

The SPD emerged with some 30 percent of the vote on Sunday, its worst showing ever and well down from the 36.5 percent in 2001. The SPD had ruled in Hamburg for 44 years up to the 2001 election.

In remarks which reflected the party’s disaffection with the situation at the national level in Berlin, the SPD’s top candidate in Hamburg, Thomas Mirow, said that it was rough running a campaign with all the problems facing Berlin.

He cited such issues as the unpopular welfare reforms being undertaken by Schroeder’s SPD-Greens coalition, a corruption scandal at the Federal Labour Office and the government’s headline-making debacle in trying to set up a highway toll system for trucks.

All these were issues at the national level which had not helped his cause in Hamburg, the 51-year-old Mirow said, admitting it was a “clear defeat” for the SPD.

Mirow said he was stepping down from active politics in Hamburg, which spawned speculation that he might be recruited for a cabinet post in Berlin.

On Monday, however, Schroeder’s spokesman denied that any cabinet shuffle was in the offing.

The election outcome in Hamburg also had repercussions on the power balance in Berlin, where the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, are in the opposition.

The Hamburg vote also was a slap for the city-state’s controversial former Interior Minister, Ronald Schill, who helped von Beust to power in the 2001 elections but whose behaviour eventually led to the breakdown of the previous three-party coalition government.

Most notoriously, Schill was at the centre of the unsavoury episode in the later summer of 2003 when he threatened to expose an alleged homosexual relationship between von Beust and Justice Minister Roger Kusch.

Von Beust, who has neither openly declared nor denied his homosexuality, fired Schill, triggering the chain of events in the fall of 2003 which ultimately led to the breakdown of the coalition.

Schill’s party, the Offensive for the Rule of Law, came out with only around 0.5 percent of the Hamburg vote, with the party in total disarray after having ousted Schill in late 2003. In 2001, the party had gained over 19 percent of the vote.

Schill himself, leading the “Pro DM/Schill” party, got around 3.5 percent of the Hamburg vote, with the former hard-line law-and-order judge saying he would be quitting politics. He also blamed his defeat on the media.

Also going under in the Hamburg vote was the coalition partner FDP, which finished at around 3 percent, failing to clear the 5 percent hurdle needed for representation in parliament.


Subject: German news