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Germany: Opposition Victories In State Elections Shake Schroeder Government

German voters have delivered a sharp rebuke to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder only four months after he won re-election. Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) lost heavily in yesterday's elections in the states of Hesse and Lower Saxony. Analysts say voters were disappointed at the government's failure to invigorate the slumping economy.

Munich, 3 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Many German analysts believe yesterday's polls in Lower Saxony and Hesse should be seen as a referendum on the coalition government led by Gerhard Schroeder, which was re-elected little more than four months ago.

They say the Schroeder government was rebuked by voters for its failure to move quickly to implement campaign promises to invigorate the economy and introduce the structural changes that experts have demanded for many years.

In the four months since Schroeder was re-elected, taxes and social welfare contributions have risen, as has unemployment. Bankruptcies have soared. Economic analysts say there is little chance of a real upswing in the next 12 months.

The general secretary of the SPD, Olaf Scholz, said today that the party accepts that government policies at the national level were a major factor in the losses in Lower Saxony and Hesse. "Ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing which can brighten this election. We lost the elections in Lower Saxony and Hesse. There is no doubt at all that the results were influenced by national policies. We take that message seriously and will take it into account when deciding future political action," Scholz said.

Scholz said the government will continue its reform policies and is convinced that voters will eventually accept that it is on the right course.

The SPD lost its 13-year-old control of the state of Lower Saxony, which was ruled by Schroeder for eight years before he became chancellor in 1998. Until yesterday, it had been accepted political wisdom that Lower Saxony was "Schroeder country."

Yesterday, the Social Democrats received only about 33 percent of the vote -- a drop of some 14 percent from its victory five years ago. The Christian Democrats will now govern in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Lower Saxony is one of the industrial heartlands of Germany and boasts six Volkswagen car plants. But it also has 8 percent unemployment, one of the highest in western Germany.

The other election was in the state of Hesse, one of Germany's biggest financial centers. It was already ruled by a coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Free Democrats. Yesterday's results gave the Christian Democrats an overall majority and in future it will rule alone. CDU leader Roland Koch is widely tipped as a possible candidate for chancellor in the next national elections.

Because these were state elections, they do not touch the government's majority in the lawmaking lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. They do give the Christian Democrats six more votes in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which represents the interests of the individual states. But the CDU already has a majority there with which it can block some government legislation, so the extra votes will have only a limited impact.

However, many government bills that affect the 16 states must go through the Bundesrat. Political analyst George Kramer was only one of many who said today that the stronger CDU presence will make it harder for the government to push through measures such as a tax overhaul or a comprehensive law on immigration. "The CDU opposition will now certainly adopt a stronger position in rejecting legislation which it dislikes," he said. "The government will now have to review all legislation going to the upper house very carefully if it wants it to succeed."

Scholz told reporters today that the government had expected defeat in both states but was dismayed at the size of the vote against it. According to some analysts, more than 300,000 voters in Schroeder's home state of Lower Saxony must have switched sides. Scholz said SPD strategists are already meeting to decide how to act more quickly to implement reforms.

In the closing days of the campaign, Schroeder and the SPD candidates unsuccessfully tried to shift the focus away from the economic situation to the possible war against Iraq. Opinion polls show a majority of Germans oppose such an attack, and the SPD offered itself as the party of peace.

It followed the tactics that Schroeder adopted in the national elections in September to avert his expected defeat. Posters at Schroeder's rallies in Lower Saxony and Hesse declared, "With a Vote for the SPD, You Say No to War." He also used an election rally in Lower Saxony to announce that Germany would not vote in favor of any United Nations resolution that legitimized military action.

But street polls taken by political institutes showed that the peace card had little influence on voters. In a typical response, a man who identified himself as a former SPD voter said: "We know that Germany won't support the war, and we agree with that. But this election is about unemployment and the economy, not about war."

Political analysts believe the new balance in the Bundesrat could open the way to a more bipartisan approach toward import reform legislation. Modernizers in the SPD have argued publicly for reforming the labor market, the health system, and the welfare state along lines very close to those of the CDU. Senior officials of both the national SPD and the CDU suggested today they could support a bipartisan approach on some legislation.

National CDU leader Angela Merkel said today she would press for the national government to pay more attention to CDU views in formulating policies. She pledged that her party will not use its majority in the Bundesrat to block what it considers to be constructive government policies. But she also said the CDU intends to use its power in the upper house to put pressure on the government to adopt its ideas. "The national CDU -- - together with our new state premier [in Lower Saxony] and the existing state premiers -- will do everything possible to achieve our goals in the Bundesrat through a clear opposition policy of hindering what is bad for Germany and promoting what is good," Merkel said.

Scholz said the government is prepared to cooperate with the CDU opposition at the national level to introduce policies for the common good.

However, the chairman of the German labor-union federation, Michael Sommer, and labor-union leaders warned the government today they would resist any attempts to dilute job-protection laws, social policies, and other traditional SPD policies. Sommer said Schroeder and his government should find other ways of restoring Germany's economic health. Commentators say it is not an idle threat. There have already been several strikes this year by discontented labor unions, and others are threatened.

Many commentators believe Schroeder's government may need the help of the CDU to implement important reform legislation against the will of the labor unions.