- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

At its party congress last month, the spirits were high among the grassroots supporters of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). After months of bad press for the party finance scandal surrounding many of its top leaders, the CDU members looked forward to last Sunday's vote in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia as a chance for a fresh start. With 20 percent of Germany's 82 million people, that state's win could have given the ruling Social Democrats quite a headache. But the CDU sorely miscalculated by choosing far-right candidate Juergen Ruettgers, who lost to SPD candidate Wolfgang Clement Sunday by 6 points.

In Haideresque fashion, Mr. Ruettgers campaigned on the anti-immigrant slogan of "Kinder statt Inder" (Children not Indians). He fought against German Chancellor Schroeder's proposal to fill a shortage of workers in the computer industry by providing green cards for foreign specialists. After all, an anti-immigrant campaign had worked for a CDU candidate in Hesse last year. But this year, such a tactic not only cost him the support of voters, but of his own party members as well.

The new generation of leaders in the CDU is making immigration reform a priority. And though they're not ready to let political whim haphazardly dictate the granting of limitless asylum privileges and green cards, racism is definitely out.

The state's CDU loss was a rather refreshing reminder that voters are not trapped in loyalty to party lines, but are still listening to what the nominees have to say. And the silence of CDU supporters in this election showed they were listening with a vengeance. Though the Social Democratic party (SPD) has ruled the region for 34 years, victory looked uncertain last fall when the CDU won the majority of state elections throughout Germany. This Sunday, voter turnout was at an all-time low.

The election wasn't all good news for the SPD, though. Not only did it lose 3.2 percent from the last state election in 1995, but its coalition partner, the Greens, lost 3 points as well. Mr. Schroeder blamed his own party for not properly addressing a local coal mining issue in partnership with the Greens. The environmental group's loss pushed the Free Democratic Party a group of free-traders with a penchant for vague rhetoric to third place in the state.

Though the state will probably keep its SPD-Greens coalition to prevent tension on the federal level (where the same coalition rules), the CDU and SPD losses provide both parties with a mandate for a more defined and unified party platform. For the CDU, leadership in immigration reform sans the Ruettgerian verbiage could turn voter silence into constituent confidence. There ought to be a lesson learned here.

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