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Germany: Socialists Suffer Another Defeat

Germany's governing Social Democratic Party suffered another major defeat in a provincial election over the weekend. The party crashed to third place in Thuringen, where it had been a partner in the provincial government. But Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder says he will push ahead with the unpopular austerity measures that are largely responsible for the election disasters. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports.

Munich, 13 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It is the fourth provincial election disaster for the Social Democrats (SPD) since they won the national elections a year ago. They have now lost power in three states (Lander). And in a fourth state, where they previously governed alone, they will now have to share power.

This weekend's defeat took place in Thuringen, a state in the former communist East Germany. For the last four years, Thuringen was governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats (CDU). But yesterday, an angry electorate gave the Christian Democrats a 51 percent majority, which means they will now govern alone.

An even greater shock for the Social Democrats is that second place went to the PDS [Party of Democratic Socialism], the successor party to the former east German communist party. The PDS won 21 percent in Thuringen, while the Social Democrats took only 18 percent, and had to be content with third place.

SPD leaders were stunned. A grim-faced Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder described the latest defeat as a "shock." The party's newly appointed secretary-general, Franz Muntefering, was blunter. In Muntefering's words, "This is a punch in the ear, a clear warning."

But Schroeder said he would press ahead with his economic reforms and the unpopular austerity package. The package, intended to slash the mounting debt, aims to cut federal spending by $16 billion next year. All levels of German society are affected, including health care, social services and unemployment benefits.

Schroeder said: "No matter what happens, I will stay with my plans to stabilize the state's finances." He went on: "It is the only way to ensure that economic well-being will continue in the future."

A party official in Thuringen had a similar message today. Vera Stein told RFE/RL:

"We expected to lose some votes. Any government with an austerity program must expect that. But we know the reforms are essential to improve the economy and we will continue with our program."

But German commentators said Schroeder may now find it difficult to obtain parliamentary approval for his economic reforms, at least in the way he wants them. His only chance is to persuade the main opposition party, the Christian Democrats, to support the reforms.

Schroeder's coalition of Social Democrats and Green environmentalists still has a majority in the Bundestag, the lower house of the national parliament in Berlin. The reform package will probably be approved there. But Schroeder's economic reforms will also have to pass the upper house, the Bundesrat. The Bundesrat is largely controlled by the state parliaments, and the succession of electoral defeats means that the Social Democrats no longer have a majority there.

Most commentators believe the Christian Democrats will help implement at least some of Schroeder's reforms. But some experts say the Christian Democrats will want modifications in some key areas of the reforms.

These analysts say dissatisfaction with the austerity program is causing voters to desert the Social Democrats. The Social Democrats argue that the austerity plan was forced on them by the Christian Democrats, who ran up huge debts when they were in power under Helmut Kohl. But Kohl and his successor as leader of the Christian Democrats, Wolfgang Schaeuble, say that the debts were unavoidable because of the huge costs associated with Germany's unification.

Some commentators believe the series of defeats could lead to a challenge to Schroeder's position as party leader at the SPD's national congress in November.

Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping is known to be waiting in the wings if the party wants him. All eyes are now focused on next Sunday's (Sept. 19) provincial election in Saxony. If the SPD also does badly there --as many analysts expect-- Schroeder's personal position could be seriously weakened.

And, interestingly enough, some of the strongest hostility to Schroeder's policies comes not from the CDU opposition, but from the Left wing of his own Social Democrats. Over the weekend, several prominent Left-wing leaders demanded that Schroeder drop certain measures in the reform package. They charged that Schroeder has abandoned the party's traditional policy of social justice and betrayed the labor unions and the workers.

It was unclear today whether yesterday's SPD disaster in Thuringen will persuade them to end the damaging public criticism of their own party and come into line behind Schroeder. But even if they do, many commentators believe it may be too late to avoid another poor showing next Sunday.