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Germany: Far Right Electoral Success Raises Questions

Munich, 27 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The shock success of a far-right nationalist party in the weekend election in the eastern German province of Saxony-Anhalt has forced political analysts to review what may happen in the federal elections in September.

Until now, the accepted view has been that Federal chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic party (CDU) are losing support and most of those leaving are turning to the Social Democrats (SPD) led by Gerhard Schroeder. The results in Saxony-Anhalt make that scenario suspect, at least in the five provinces of the former communist East Germany.

It appears that thousands of voters switched instead to the far right German People's Union (DVU), which many consider to be neo-Nazi and which is under surveillance by the internal security service for racist tendencies. A month ago it was not even mentioned by most political analysts speculating n the outcome of the Saxony-Anhalt election. Yesterday it won 12.9 per cent of the vote. It is the biggest win by the far right in either provincial or federal elections since the end of the war. DVU should have about 14 seats in its first appearance in the 99-seat provincial parliament.

Polls taken last week predicted that the SPD would win at least 40 per cent of the vote and possibly even more so that it could govern alone. The SPD did improve its position but still took only 35.9 per cent of the vote, giving it seven extra seats. It is now trying to decide whether to form a coalition with the Christian Democrats or create a minority government with the support of the former East German communist party. The Christian Democrats crashed as heavily as expected -- losing about 12 per cent of the vote to finish with 22 per cent. It will probably have lost 11 seats.

The SPD leader Schroeder has pinned his hopes of winning the Federal election in September by creating a "new center," including younger voters who would normally vote Christian Democrat but no loner trust Kohl and his team and are looking for fresh leadership. But political analyst Joachim Raschke joined many others today in saying: "the Saxony-Anhalt result suggests that east German voters who are disillusioned with Kohl may not necessarily switch their loyalties to the Social Democrats."

In Bonn today, all the major German political parties held private meeting to consider whether the success of the German People's Union is simply a "protest vote" in eastern Germany, where voters are known to be disenchanted because of high unemployment and a feeling that Bonn treats them as a second-class citizens, or could there be similar hidden threats in western Germany from groups which have not been given consideration or taken seriously ?

Election analysts have declared that most of those who voted for the German People's Union were the young people voting for the first time and from people who do not normally vote. According to statistics presented by German television, the strongest vote in favor of the People's Union came from 18-24 year olds. There was also strong support from those aged between 24-34. But even in the age group 34-44 there was considerable support for the DVU.

So what was the attraction. Joachim Ragnitz from the Institute for Economic Research (IWH) in the Saxony-Anhalt city of Halle believes unemployment was an important factor. Saxony-Anhalt was once the pride of East German industry. It boasted its finest chemical refineries and machine-building plants. Today it is frequently referred to as "German's poorhouse".

With one in four residents out of work (22.6 per cent) Saxony-Anhalt has the highest unemployment rate of any German province, either east or west. It also has the slowest growth rate. In the past four years 4,500 firms have gone bankrupt. The worn-out chemical plants, the oil refineries and other industrial plants have been modernized by western investors but the process led to the dismissal of thousands.

"Once there were 200,000 people employed in the chemical and machine-building industries," says Ragnitz. "Today it has slumped to fewer than 40,000. The chances of young people in that key 18-24 year old age group finding a good job are very poor." Ragnitz said that all this led to disillusionment with the political parties in Bonn. He said it made a mockery of Chancellor Kohl's promise at the time of reunification that East Germany would become a "flourishing landscape."

Into this pool of disenchantment stepped the right-wing publisher Gerhard Frey. His publishing house in Munich produces newspapers extolling right-wing causes and the deeds of German soldiers in World War Two. The publishing house has made him a millionaire. Frey was instrumental in founding the German Peoples Union ten years ago and is the party's national leader. At times the party has challenged reports of the Holocaust but has been careful to keep its views within the law which bans Germans from questioning the fact of the Holocaust. In 1996 Germany's internal security service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, condemned the party for what was described as "anti-Semitic and racist tendencies."

Frey, 65, has frequently declared his intention of building a political base in eastern Germany and has focused on both unemployment and the latent hostility to foreigners in some parts of the region. Foreigners represent little more than one per cent of the population in the eastern provinces, but last year at least 25 towns and cities in eastern Germany had so-called "liberated zones," which thugs keep free of foreigners and asylum-seekers.

Officials in Saxony-Anhalt estimate that Frey spent the equivalent of 1.7 million dollars in a publicity blitz over the last month aimed at the young, unemployed and disenchanted voters of Saxony-Anhalt. His posters and leaflets urged that foreign children not be allowed to attend German schools and that all social spending be directed only to "German purposes".

The SPD leader in Saxony-Anhalt Reinhard Hoeppner is faced now with the task of forming a new government. His previous coalition partner, the Greens, failed to gain a single seat in yesterday's election. This leaves him with the choice of forming a coalition with the badly-beaten Christian Democrats or making an arrangement with the PDS, the successor party to the east German communist party. The PDS won around 19 per cent in yesterday's election.

A spokesman for Hoeppner told RFE/RL today that the SPD would definitely not bring the PDS into a formal coalition. However it was possible that an arrangement could be made whereby the SPD would form a minority government and the PDS would support it without being an official members of the Government. The spokesman said this possibility had already provoked protests from the Christian Democrats who say they are ready to enter a coalition with the SPD and warned against the "danger to democracy" of any arrangement with the former east German communists.