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Germany: Socialists Lose Key State Election Five Months Before National Vote

Germany's governing Social Democrats suffered a massive defeat in a state election in former-communist eastern Germany, losing to their center-right rivals, the Christian Democratic Union. Some commentators are interpreting the result as a sign the electorate is turning to the right before national elections in September. The election also dampened the hopes of the former East German communist party of becoming a more potent political force. RFE/RL's German correspondent Roland Eggleston files this report.

Munich, 22 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder suffered a sharp setback yesterday when his Social Democratic Party (SPD) was badly beaten in provincial elections in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt.

The winner was the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which will be Schroeder's main opponent in national elections in five months. It almost doubled its share of the vote in yesterday's election and will be the major partner in the new coalition government in Saxony-Anhalt with Wolfgang Boehmer as premier.

Boehmer said today his main goal was to get people back to work and stop the "brain drain" of young workers leaving for other parts of Germany where there are more opportunities. Unemployment in Saxony-Anhalt is around 20 percent, compared with a national average of 10 percent.

The CDU candidate for chancellor in the national elections in September, Edmund Stoiber, described the result as "magnificent":

"I consider this a magnificent result. I view it, naturally, as great encouragement in our struggle to bring about a change in [the federal government in] Berlin."

Analysts said the defeat could be a signal the German electorate may be turning to the right and that it may be difficult for the SPD to hold onto power.

In public statements today the SPD's secretary-general, Franz Munterfering, rejected this approach. "Special conditions apply in Saxony-Anhalt," he said, referring to the state's poverty and heavy indebtedness.

But Munterfering conceded that the result was a "dramatic defeat." He said the SPD must fight harder in political debate to win public support.

"We must fight. We must try harder and do more in the public political debates."

The final results of the Saxony-Anhalt election have not been announced, but it appears that the SPD dropped from 36 percent of the vote in the 1998 election to 20 percent yesterday. It means the SPD will have about 25 seats in the new parliament, instead of 47.

The big winner was the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It increased its share of the vote from 22 percent to around 37 percent and will have about 48 seats in the new parliament, up from 28. The main source of its success was its claim that it could handle the economy better than the outgoing Social Democrats and ex-communists.

The CDU's coalition partner is expected to be the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which was not represented in the outgoing parliament, but won 17 seats yesterday. Its leaders also say they see yesterday's election as a signal for a similar coalition in Berlin after the national elections in September.

The other major party in the Saxony-Anhalt parliament is the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) -- the successor party to the former East German communist party. Today its spokesman, Dietmar Barsch, claimed a "partial success" because it retained its 25 seats in the local parliament and is now the second-biggest party there -- behind the Christian Democrats and ahead of the Social Democrats.

In the outgoing parliament, the PDS kept the minority Social Democratic government in power. The PDS had no role in the government but supported it from outside.

Many analysts believe the outgoing Social Democratic government was punished for failing to end economic misery in Saxony-Anhalt.

Twelve years after German reunification, much of Saxony-Anhalt remains poverty-stricken. With a per capita income of only 15,600 euros, Saxony-Anhalt is in last place among the 16 German states.

This is in sharp contrast to Communist times when Saxony-Anhalt was among the showcases of East German industry. Its chemical refineries and machine-building plants employed thousands. Some of these industries are still there, but automation has led to the dismissal of many workers.

In a television interview today, new Premier Wolfgang Boehmer acknowledged he faces a difficult task in turning the economy around.

One of his first priorities will be to stem the flight of talented young people. About 35,000 people, most of them young, leave Saxony-Anhalt each year looking for jobs in western Germany.

Boehmer declined to go into detail about his plans for economic recovery but said austerity measures were unavoidable. He is expected to cut back on the heavy social spending that was one of the demands of the PDS for supporting the outgoing government. These included such things as a guaranteed place in a day-care center for every child from birth.

Economic experts say the public payroll may have to be trimmed. The government's share of the total economy -- 30 percent -- is the highest of any German state. Bavaria and Hesse, for instance, make do with around 14 percent, and even other eastern German states have a smaller public payroll.

Political analyst Peter Raschke today summed up his review of the situation by saying: "the Christian Democrats won the election. But they also won a heavy burden." Their success in handling it could be a key to what happens in the September election.