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Germany: Social Democrats Suffer Another Defeat

Germany's ruling Social Democratic party has suffered another loss in elections, this time in the eastern province of Saxony. The party placed third behind the rival Christian Democrats and the successor to the Communist party, the Party of Social Democracy. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston says the result casts a shadow over Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's reform program -- and over his future as chancellor.

Munich, 20 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's ruling Social Democrats suffered another humiliating defeat in a provincial election at the weekend. And some German political analysts are now wondering whether the party may be dying as a political power in the formerly communist eastern part of the country.

The election in Saxony - an east German province - was won as expected by the Christian Democrats, which have been in power since German unification in 1990. The party won about 57 percent of the poll, thanks to voters who give popular Christian Democratic premier Kurt Biedenkopf credit for the province's economic revival.

The shock was that the Social Democrats slipped into third place behind the Party of Social Democracy (PDS), the successor party to the former East German communist party. The Social Democrats won only 10.7 per cent of the vote -- dropping about 5.9 percentage points in its worst result since the end of World War Two. In contrast, the PDS took 22.2 percent -- a gain of about 5.7 percentage points.

The result was a repetition of last week's election in Thuringen, another eastern German province, where the Social Democrats also finished third behind the Christian Democrats and the PDS.

Political analysts say it appears that leftist voters in eastern Germany do not believe the Social Democrats can help solve the region's economic problems. They say many voters in the east now prefer the PDS.

The jubilant leader of the PDS, Gregor Gysi, appeared on television yesterday waving his arms above his head and declared: "We're on our way up."

Analysts say many voters do not like the tough austerity program proposed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The program freezes pensions for several years and cuts welfare payments. Both the Christian Democrats and the PDS campaigned on the argument that eastern Germany will suffer most from the austerity measures.

Schroeder has said his program is necessary if Germany is to reduce the country's large mountain of debt. He told parliament last week that Germany's debt has reached $833 billion -- 50 percent more than in 1994. The nation is paying $45 billion every year just to pay off the interest.

Schroeder also says his program is essential to "modernize" Germany to face the challenges created by globalization of the world's economies.

But the left wing of his own party and many of the SPD's traditional supporters disagree. They say Schroeder and his circle of "modernists" in the party have abandoned traditional Social Democratic policies of social justice and are following economic policies similar to those of the conservative Christian Democrats.

The Social Democratic leader in Saxony, Karl-Heinz Kunckel, reflected this view when he blamed "federal politics" for the disaster. Early today, he offered his resignation as party leader.

Reacting the election defeat, Social Democratic Secretary-General Franz Muntefering repeated what has become a ritual statement: that the result was a "bitter disappointment" but that the austerity measures would remain. A Schroeder spokesman confirmed the chancellor's determination to push ahead with his unpopular course.

The succession of defeats has led to discussion in some political circles that Schroeder might be removed as party leader - and even as chancellor -- at the Social Democrats' party congress in December. Reports in several newspapers suggest Defense Minister Rudolph Scharping is ready to replace him.

Scharping has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with Schroeder's demands for cuts in the defense budget. However, last week, Scharping issued a public statement denying he had his eye on Schroeder's job.

In the meantime, public dissatisfaction continues. The next provincial election is in Berlin Oct. 10. Most analysts are already predicting the Social Democrats will suffer another big defeat.