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Germany: Elections Satisfy Government -- And Opposition

Voters in two German states went to the polls yesterday and in both instances re-elected their existing legislatures. German commentators today said the results could not be seen as a preview of next year's national elections, in which the country's Christian Democrats will be trying to win power from Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats.

Munich, 26 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- No major upsets marked yesterday's (Sunday's) elections in two German states (Laender), which saw incumbent governments remain in power.

In southwestern Baden-Wuerttemberg, the Christian Democrats Union, or CDU, will continue its 49-year hold on power, and will remain in coalition with the Free Democrats. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the situation is reversed: The Social Democrat Party, or SPD, will continue its ruling coalition with the controversial Green environmental party.

German television commentators today said the results of the state elections -- in which federal politics played only a small role -- made it difficult to extrapolate the possible outcome of the country's national elections next year.

Other analysts, however, said results suggested that the CDU was beginning to slowly recover from the financial scandals associated with its former head, Helmut Kohl.

They suggested that the party -- under the stabilizing influence of its new leader, Angela Merkel -- might be able to launch a strong challenge to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in August 2002 elections.

Merkel said the polls had shown that the CDU was regaining political strength. Her party won comfortably in conservative Baden-Wuerttemberg, with nearly 45 percent of the vote, and ended up in a respectable second-place in Rhineland-Palatinate with 36 percent. Merkel commented:

"[The CDU] has shown that it can win elections. After these difficult months -- almost a year -- this is a step forward for us, and now we look forward optimistically to the federal elections."

Chancellor Schroeder likewise saw cause for celebration in the votes, calling the results "wonderful" and proof of continued confidence in the SPD. Many observers agreed that Schroeder had cause for optimism about the future. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, the SPD had its best showing in 29 years, winning 33 percent of the vote -- a jump of more than 8 percentage points since the last elections five years ago.

Much of the credit for the party's popularity surge in the traditionally conservative stronghold has gone to the local party leader Ute Vogt. Vogt campaigned with such vigor against incumbent two-time governor Erwin Teufel that earlier this month many commentators believed she had a real chance of ejecting the CDU government after nearly 50 years in power.

Vogt herself summed up what may have been an insurmountable challenge, saying: "It's hard to push out a government with which most people are satisfied." Post-election polls indicated that the economy -- which is currently booming in Baden-Wuerttemberg, thanks in large part to industry in Stuttgart -- was the primary issue for voters in the state.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, the SPD had every reason to be satisfied. The current government, led by Governor Kurt Beck, gained nearly 5 percentage points on their last election returns, and will remain the primary partner in a coalition with the Greens.

The Greens were the elections' only big loser, losing a whopping one-third of their 1996 return, with votes of under 8 percent in Baden-Wuerttemberg and slightly more than 5 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate -- just enough to allow them representation in parliament.

Federal politics, usually not an element in state elections, was a factor in yesterday's vote in Rhineland-Palatinate. The CDU, unable to rally voters with its local policies, turned to mudslinging instead, waging a campaign against the country's environmental minister, Jurgen Trittin.

Trittin, a member of the Greens, has aroused anger by describing a prominent CDU official as a "skinhead" -- a term associated with neo-Nazis. Trittin also criticized the CDU official for saying he was "proud to be German," a slogan he says is often used by right-wing parties and groups.

In response, Rhineland-Palatinate's CDU members began a campaign to oust Trittin from the federal government. A petition drive and newspaper campaign urged voters to declare that they, too, were "proud to be German."

The campaign was partly defused by Schroeder. In a statement, the chancellor disassociated himself from Trittin's comments and said that he as well was "proud" of Germany's democratic culture and the achievements of its people. But the campaign may still have contributed to the Greens' poor showing yesterday, and raised doubts about how the environmental party will fare in next year's national elections.

Trittin, who continues to reject the "proud to be a German" slogan, says he considers himself a victim of a CDU defamation campaign:

"For months the CDU has conducted a campaign intended to drive a minister out of the national government. At the moment they are concentrating on me. One has to learn to live with that and continue with one's work."

But many Greens have distanced themselves from the left-wing Trittin, whose comments have often been a source of embarrassment for the party. Today, Green leaders met to discuss Trittin's future. Analysts say that although they expect Trittin to hold on to his post as environmental minister, his position has been severely weakened and any further troubling remarks could lead to his dismissal.