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Germany: Schroeder Gets Boost In Local Election

Germany's governing Social Democrats won a comfortable victory yesterday in the provincial elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, confirming the revival of the party after a string of election defeats last year. Most analysis say the opposition Christian Democrats are still suffering from the financial scandals surrounding its former leader, Helmut Kohl. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports.

Cologne, 15 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany's biggest province -- with 18 million people -- and the center of its industrial power. Many commentators see it as a barometer of the national political feeling.

If that is true, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party, or SPD, can rest assured it has climbed out of the valley in which it fell last year, when it suffered defeat after defeat in provincial elections.

In yesterday's local election, regional Premier Wolfgang Clement failed to achieve his ambition of an overall majority. The SPD took 3.2 percent less of the vote than it did in the last election, five years ago. Still, the SPD did win most of the votes.

Just three months ago, such success seemed unlikely. Many believed that a series of political blunders by the SPD and low-level corruption among local leaders would give victory to the Christian Democrats in the province for the first time since 1966.

But the CDU took only 37 percent of the vote, about the same as it obtained five years ago. Some CDU officials blamed the recent plunge in their party's popularity on the financial scandals surrounding the former CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl and some of his closest aides. Other party officials blamed mistakes in the campaign conducted by the CDU leader in the province, Juergen Ruttgers.

Earlier this year, Ruttgers stirred up a national controversy by rejecting a government plan to give short-term contracts to highly-qualified foreigners to improve Germany's lagging computer industry. The plan has strong support in a region that hopes that the communications and electronic industries can replace the previous reliance on coal and steel for economic prosperity.

Ignoring advice from industrial and business leaders, Ruttgers opposed the introduction of foreigners to bring the German computer industry up to international standards. Ruttgers argued that German children should receive better education instead of importing foreigners, whom he believed would come mainly from India. He coined the election slogan "Kinder statt Inder" -- "Children instead of Indians" -- which many considered racist and xenophobic. In response to national disapproval, Ruttgers amended the slogan to "education instead of immigration." In practice, most of the applications for the high-tech jobs have not come from India, but instead from Russia, the Baltic States, and Eastern Europe.

German commentators say the anti-immigrant message never caught fire among the voters. In recent weeks, it faded into the background and was rarely mentioned in political speeches.

Ruttgers sees it differently. He told an interviewer that the policy had not been a mistake, and suggested he would maintain his campaign in his role as opposition leader in North Rhine-Westphalia.

"It was a proper issue. We had a lot of support among the people and it mobilized the party. They knew for what they were campaigning. It is an issue on which we will continue working in the future."

Some German analysts had expected yesterday's poll to throw a light on how voters feel about the new leader of the CDU, Angela Merkel. She is the first woman to lead a major party in Germany, and polls have suggested her popularity is growing. But Merkel attended few election rallies in the province and appeared to have little influence on voters. Several commentators have suggested that she distanced herself from Ruttgers, who originally fought against her selection as national leader of the CDU.

For most commentators, the main question after yesterday's election is which of the minor parties will be chosen to join the Social Democrats in a new coalition. The Green environmental party, which was the coalition partner in the previous government, lost votes in this local election, and finished with only 7.1 percent. In contrast, the business-oriented Free Democrats, or FDP, which was not even represented in the previous parliament, won 9.8 percent and becomes the third strongest party, after the SPD and the CDU.

It was a major success for the FDP, which is represented in few provincial parliaments. Some analysts believe it benefited from those who normally vote for the CDU but did not wish to do so this time because of the Kohl scandal.

Free Democratic leader Juergen Moellemann has loudly urged the SPD to bring his party into the regional government. Premier Clement says his first coalition talks will be with the Greens.