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Germany: Bavarian Ballot May Not Affect National Elections

Munich, 14 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Elections in Bavaria at the weekend appear to have boosted Chancellor Helmut Kohl' s chances in the national contest at the end of the month, but many Germans remain cautious about the impact because of the special local conditions.

Yesterday's balloting brought a major success for the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister-party of Kohl's Christian Democrats. It won an absolute majority with 52.9 percent of the vote and gained three extra seats. The main opposition party, the Social Democrats lost support and finished with 28.7 percent and two fewer seats.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his ministers were just as jubilant as the winning CSU in Bavaria. Kohl appeared on television to say the Bavarian result was "a signal that the voters are swinging back to us." Last week's opinion polls still place Kohl and his Christian Democrats between three to six points behind the Social Democrats in the race for the national elections on September 27.

But several independent commentators noted today that the CSU has enjoyed an overall majority in the Bavarian provincial parliament since 1962 and no one had expected a change this year. The national leader of the SPD, Gerhard Schroeder, told a party rally in Munich two weeks ago that he did not expect his party to win more than 30 percent in Bavaria. After the results were known last night Schroeder said they "met my expectations if not my hopes."

Most commentators believe the CSU victory was a personal victory for provincial Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber, who enjoys widespread personal popularity even among political opponents. Stoiber stressed throughout his campaign that this was a Bavarian election and kept the national question at a distance.

Stoiber makes no secret of his disagreement with many of Kohl's policies, and particularly with Kohl's strong support for the introduction of the common European currency next year. He rarely mentioned Kohl's name during the election campaign and made little reference to the work of the federal government during its 16 years in power. Instead he emphasized the way Bavaria's economy has flourished under the 36 years of CSU majority rule.

Stoiber stressed that Bavaria enjoys the lowest unemployment in Germany, the highest economic growth, the highest investment in new technology, the lowest debt-per-head, the best crime statistics and is regarded by many as having the best education system.

Foreign policy issues made almost no impact on the campaign. In Bavaria this particularly includes the question of relations with Prague. Thousands of so-called Sudeten Germans expelled from what is now the Czech Republic after the war settled in Bavaria and have campaigned strongly against better relations with Prague until their compensation claims are recognized and settled. The CSU generally supports these demands, but in the campaign they were mentioned only by CSU candidates campaigning in areas where Sudeten voters have a large presence.

The CSU wants the present governing coalition to continue after the elections in two weeks and was at pains today to say so. The CSU general secretary, Bernd Protzner, has said in answer to a question that Bonn's policies might have been ignored during the campaign "but it was never against Bonn." He said the Bavarian election had sent a signal that the people did not want a red-green coalition of social democrats and green environmentalists, and believed that message would carry through to the national elections. But CSU spokesmen also noted that opinion polls show that as many as 30 percent of the German electorate remain undecided about how they will vote in the national elections and said they must be the target group for the next two weeks.

The SPD opposition believes the Bavarian election will have little spin-off for the national election. Schroeder told reporters last night and again today that "Bavaria was a state election won by a popular, energetic leader. The outcome of the federal election will be different. The issue there is whether Germany wants to keep a burned-out chancellor in power."

In two weeks, Germany will know who was right.