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SPD sinks to historic low in Hamburg vote

1 March 2004

HAMBURG – Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) swept to a majority for the first time ever in the northern city-state of Hamburg Sunday in an election result that was quickly seen as a blow to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats (SPD).

But many analysts also pointed out that while disaffection with the SPD on the national level had certainly been a disadvantage to Hamburg’s SPD, other factors peculiar to the politics of the city also played a major role.

In particular, there were personality factors, especially involving an extremely popular CDU mayor, Ole von Beust, and his widely reviled former interior minister, Ronald Schill.

But there was also a corrective factor of how much populist-style politics voters were willing to swallow. On Sunday, the people of Hamburg decided to go with the established parties and gave their backing to three. Besides the CDU and SPD, there were also the Greens.

By preliminary official figures late Sunday, the Hamburg vote gave the CDU 47.2 percent of the vote, a 21-point increase from the previous election in September 2001 and an absolute majority for the first time.

The SPD, which had ruled the city for 44 years until 2001, sank 6 points to its worst-ever showing of 30.5 percent.

The Greens improved 3.7 percent to 12.3 percent.

All other parties fell below the 5 percent mark necessary for a presence in parliament in the first tangible change in Hamburg’s political scenery, poll analysts said.

For more than a decade, protest groups had consistently challenged the established parties by winning a sizeable chunk of the votes and, for awhile, gaining seats in parliament. But this time, Hamburg voters turned their backs on the protest parties.

This was most clear in the showing of the law-and-order party called Offensive for the Rule of Law, or popularly known as the “Schill party” for its founder, former interior minister Schill.

After gaining 19.4 percent of the vote in September 2001 when the party tapped into a huge well of discontent with the then-ruling SPD, Schill’s party this time got 0.4 percent. The 19-point plunge at the polls nearly matched the gains posted by the CDU.

The election results appeared to point to something else happening in Hamburg that could spell some long-term trouble for the SPD, and that was the change in its economic and social structure.

With its shipbuilding, steel, chemical, metal-working and petroleum industries, Hamburg for decades was a working-class bastion for the Social Democrats, the hometown where former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt started his political career.

But over the past 25 to 30 years, Hamburg has slowly but steadily been changing. It is now home to banks and insurance firms; import- export companies; private radio, television and film studios; advertising and public relations agencies; and magazine, newspaper and book-publishing houses. As white-collar employment rose, so has the CDU grown.

Sunday’s election also appeared to be about Hamburg voters deciding to give von Beust a chance to rule without the “villain” in the city’s political landscape, Schill.

Von Beust, 48, with his understated and businesslike style has been a key element in the CDU’s success. With his gold-blonde hair and correct manners, the photogenic von Beust presents himself well in public and in the media.

By contrast, there was the towering and glowering Schill, a former law-and-order judge with the body language of a bully and a populist rhetoric bordering at times on the right-wing.

From the beginning, the von Beust-Schill alliance was an uneasy one, but the mayor stuck with his interior minister – out of necessity – to stay in power.

After numerous scandals and near-scandals in the government, Schill finally snapped von Beust’s patience in an unsavoury episode in August 2003. In a dispute over alleged corruption in his own ministry, Schill threatened to expose von Beust as gay.

Von Beust had never explicitly acknowledged or denied his sexual orientation, but at that point, the mayor seemed to have discovered something in Schill’s character that the rest of the public had long seen, and he fired his interior minister.

That set into motion the events that led to the breakup of the Hamburg coalition and to the early elections. And that in turn set the stage for voters to make some big changes on their ballots on Sunday.

Above all, they sent Schill packing and they gave von Beust their backing.

Characteristically, Schill on Sunday blasted the media for his defeat and then announced he was leaving politics and leaving Germany. “I’m going to South America,” he said.

Von Beust, the relief in his voice almost audible, said: “It’s good that Schill will no longer play a role in Hamburg. I wish him a good journey to South America.”



Subject: German News