News Digest "A Mighty Wake-Up Call"

By David Hudson

Chancellor Schröder's Social Democrats lose the Saarland outright to the conservative opposition as well as their absolute majority in Brandenburg in Sunday's state elections. Also: The US and British press on Schröder's future.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder knew it would be bad. But not this bad. On Sunday evening, the visibly shaken chancellor and chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), walked up to a microphone in Berlin, and the symbolism, carried live on national television, couldn't have been more apt. There he stood, dwarfed by a larger-than-life-size bronze statue of Willy Brandt, the beloved SPD icon who governed Germany as chancellor from 1969 to 1974. Schröder likes to think of Brandt as a model for his own chancellorship, but it was clear on this Sunday evening anyway that he was simply not measuring up.

Schröder admitted that he was "disappointed and saddened" by the results still spewing from television screens. A loss of five percent for the SPD and a gain of nearly seven percent for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the small state of Saarland translated into a narrow majority (45.5 to 44.4 percent) for the conservative opposition and a change of government after 14 years of the SPD's solo reign. In Brandenburg, despite the popularity of SPD state premier Manfred Stolpe, the SPD lost nearly 15 percent of the vote as compared to the results of elections held in 1994, and with that percentage, the SPD lost its absolute majority.

Nevertheless, Schröder insisted that he has not lost the "will to fight". As if the savings package outlined by Finance Minister Hans Eichel (SPD) calling for 30 billion marks worth of cuts in the federal budget ($US 16 billion) and linking pensions to the rate of inflation rather than wages were the only issue, Schröder reiterated that there was "no, truly no alternative" to the "program for the future", as he's calling Eichel's austerity measures now.

But these state elections were hardly referendums on a single issue. At stake were two separate electorates' confidence in the ability of the SPD and their junior coalition partners, the Greens, to govern. The Greens lost percentage points in both states, and as Manfred Stolpe said on Monday, the voters have delivered "a mighty wake-up call" to the SPD.

In the Saarland, Peter Müller (CDU) will be taking over the reins of the state premiership from Reinhard Klimmt (SPD), who took that seat from Schröder's sharpest critic, former Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine. Throughout the campaign, Klimmt kept applying the Lafontainian pressure on Schröder from the left, refusing to support Eichel's savings package, pushing for a wealth tax and labeling Schröder's Blair-like "New Middle" concept of government "socially unjust". Towards the end, it looked as if Klimmt's criticisms might have been paying off in the state with a population of two and a half million where the rapidly declining coal industry is still the heart of a strain of social democracy where the accent is on the social. But the surge was too little, too late. Here you 'll find charts showing the final tallies, the losses and gains and parliamentary seat distributions in the Saarland.

The most dramatic development in Brandenburg, the primarily rural state enveloping Berlin where unemployment is officially stagnated at 20 percent, is the entry of the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU), the German People's Union, into the parliament in Potsdam. The shadowy right-wing extremist party funded by Munich-based publisher Gerhard Frey scored just enough votes to cross the five percent threshold. Brandenburg's Social Minister Regine Hildebrandt (SPD): "When I see that the DVU has no concepts with which to combat unemployment, I am gripped by pure desperation as I realize that this party is able to grab votes with slogans alone." The results in Brandenburg.

State Premier Stolpe now faces an unwelcome dilemma. Having lost the absolute majority he's enjoyed for five years, he'll have to form a coalition with either the CDU (up nearly eight percentage points to 26.6) or the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, up 4.6 to 23.3 percent), the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the SED, the communist party that governed former East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both parties have declared their willingness to govern alongside the SPD in Brandenburg and talks have been called with both candidate parties. The deadline for a decision: October 4.

But the SPD faces far more urgent deadlines. State elections are to be held in Thuringia next Sunday, followed by elections in Saxony, municipal elections in Cologne and Dortmund, and in October, Berlin. Seats in the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, are already leaking away from the SPD, and if the CDU scores still more, the conservatives will be in a position to block Schröder's programs as they come up from the lower house, the Bundestag.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what has soured the Germans on the SPD (national polls show the SPD trailing far behind the CDU), but considering the personal popularity of both Reinhard Klimmt and Manfred Stolpe in their respective regions, it's just as hard not to point to the federal level, and specifically, to Gerhard Schröder. As SPIEGEL ONLINE Editor-in-Chief Dieter Degler writes, "Schröder's system, as manifest in its first year of government, will not alone be enough to convincingly lead the party and the country into the next millennium. It is precisely this that voters in the Saarland and Brandenburg were able to detect."

Germany and Europe on the Web today:

First, the overnight reactions to the election results.

Roger Cohen in the "New York Times": "The defeat of Klimmt, after the departure from politics of Lafontaine, leaves the left wing of the Social Democrats without any obvious representative. This may help Schroeder as he tries to push through his program, but may also cause anger and frustration among Germany's powerful unions." Free registration required

Ian Traynor calls the SPD's losses "c atastrophic" and quotes Hamburg political scientist Joachim Raschke in the "Guardian": "You now have two governments in Germany. You have the Red-Green government, but the CDU will now be able to co-govern [in the Bundesrat] in Berlin." Free registration required

Roger Boyes in the London "Times": "If [North Rhine Westphalia] falls [next May], then the Chancellor will go soon afterwards. Rudolf Scharping, the Defence Minister, though loudly swearing loyalty to the Chancellor, is waiting for the moment. ... My bet is that the [SPD] will rip itself apart this winter."

William Drozdiak in the "Washington Post": "Schröder deplored the vote share of 'the right-wing morass' that he lamented as 'a shocking blow' to Germany's image."

Andrew Gimson in the "Daily Telegraph": "The DVU has managed to establish itself in the east as the preferred party for unemployed and working class Germans who believe foreigners are intent on stealing their jobs, their women and their taxes, and who want to give the mainstream parties an almighty kick."

But it was over the weekend leading up to the elections that the US and British press was able to provide a more leisurely look at the background issues, individual regions and personalities.

In Saturday's "NYT", Berlin bureau chief Roger Cohen writes, "[T]he small Saarland region... has become an unlikely focus of the identity crisis of Schröder's 136-year-old Social Democratic Party and of the ideological battles of the European left as a whole. ... In many ways, the Saarland is a microcosm of Germany's dilemmas." On Sunday, Cohen turned his attention to Brandenburg. Free registration required

Like Cohen, Tony Paterson in the Sunday "Telegraph" and Ian Traynor in Saturday's "Guardia n center their Brandenburg background coverage on the rise of the far right and find effective quotes in the DVU slogans: "No more money for foreigners"; "Defend yourself on Election Day"; "German money for German workers." Free registration required for the "Guardian"

Tony Allen-Mills in the "Sunday Times": "No German government has ever sunk so fast in opinion polls in its first nine months in office, but the real pain for Schröder may be only starting."

"You got me," Martin Frankel is reported to have said after he was arrested Saturday night for embezzling hundreds of millions in any currency you choose. Frankel was caught in a luxurious Hamburg hotel where he'd been staying for eight weeks. Edmund L. Andrews in the "NY T" and Ian Traynor in the "G uardian" on the end of the money manager's four-month odyssey. Free registration required

Is it possible that the Germans might be too successful in their sector of Kosovo? Summaries in English of two articles addressing this question as well as other selected articles from this week's DER SPIEGEL.

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