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Germany: Social Democrats Lose Power In Two States

Munich, 6 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is vowing to continue with his clearly unpopular economic reforms despite a sharp rebuff by voters in two provincial elections over the weekend.

In a statement issued in Berlin today, Schroeder acknowledged that the losses by his Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the elections represented voter dissatisfaction with the Federal government's economic policies as well as factional fighting within the party during the summer. But he said his austerity plans were vital if Germany was to remain competitive in the international economy, and pledged to press on with them.

Schroeder's Social Democrats lost power in the state (Land) of Saarland on the French border for the first time in 15 years. The opposition Christian Democrats won only one seat more than they had before, but that seat allows them to the take control of the state government.

In Brandenburg, a former East German state near Berlin, the Social Democrats remained the biggest vote-winner but lost their overall majority and will now have to govern in a coalition. Today the state's SPD leader, Manfred Stolpe, said he had not yet decided whether to try to arrange a coalition with the Christian Democrats or to turn to the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism), the successor party to the East German communists.

Most analysts are convinced that the main cause for the losses was voter dissatisfaction with the Federal government's austerity program. In practical terms, it means Schroeder may have difficulty in winning the necessary approval of the upper house of parliament (Bundesrat) for his austerity program. The upper house is made up largely of representatives of the 16 states (Lander) and Schroeder no longer has a majority there. He now has to win the support of at least some states governed by the opposition CDU to succeed with his economic reforms.

Schroeder and his finance minister, Hans Eichel, have presented a program to cut federal spending by $16 billion next year. The government argues this is essential to curb the spiraling federal debt and to open the way for tax cuts. The government also hopes it will create jobs and cut unemployment below the 10 percent level where it has obstinately been stuck for more than a year.

The austerity program touches almost all elements in the German economy, from cutting the size of diplomatic missions and cultural institutions in foreign countries to increases in the cost of gasoline. Popular outrage has been directed particularly to the idea of pegging pensions for the next two years to inflationary growth --after that, normal pension increases would be resumed.

Throughout the summer, Germans who normally vote for the Social Democrats have been telling newspaper and television interviewers that the Schroeder government has abandoned the party's traditional policy of "social justice" for the working man. Most commentators believe this dissatisfaction was the prime cause of the losses in the weekend elections.

But for many German analysts, the government's election losses were overshadowed by the success in the Brandenburg election of the far-right German People's Party, the DVU. The party just passed the 5 percent minimum vote to get into parliament and will have five seats.

The DVU is strongly opposed to foreigners and has frequently demanded they should all be expelled. It has been described by Germany's internal security service in an official report as having "anti-Semitic and racial tendencies." In Brandenburg it campaigned almost entirely on a xenophobic program that alleged foreign workers were responsible for the state's high unemployment and therefore should be deported. Unemployment is around 20 percent in Brandenburg.

German analysts describe the success of the DVU as a blow to the nation's pride in its post-Nazi democracy. Some are also worried about its possible implications for the political future in former communist east Germany. Brandenburg is the second former communist state to elect DVU members in its local parliament. The other is Saxony-Anhalt, which elected DVU members in April of last year. Political analysts now have their eyes fixed on two other elections in former communist provinces this month. They are in Thuringen next Sunday (Sept. 12) and in Saxony the following Sunday (Sept. 19). It will be considered a bad omen if the DVU also enters those parliaments.

Schroeder's government is also concerned about the elections in Thuringen and Saxony. Like all former east German states, unemployment is high in both regions and the SPD fears additional votes against it. Losses in Thuringen and Saxony would deepen the SPD's loss of power in the upper house of the federal parliament.

Political analysts will also be watching the performance of the PDS. If the successors to the former east German communists succeed in entering the Brandenburg parliament in this Sunday's vote, it could be chosen by the SPD as its partner in the provincial government. And if the PDS and the extreme-right DVU both do well in the Thuringen and Saxony elections, the results could herald a major change in the German political landscape long dominated by the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.