- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

BERLIN, Feb. 2 (UPI) — German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats seemed headed for a humiliating double defeat with state election losses in Hesse and Lower Saxony.

In Lower Saxony, Schroeder suffered a personal setback because it is his home state, where he was prime minister until he became chancellor five years ago, observers noted.

Schroeder had also spent the last two weeks campaigning hard in the state. But even the prestige of the chancellor could not save the Social Democrats were being forced out of office by the opposition Christian Democrats after 13 years in power in Sunday's state-level elections.

The Greens, who are Schroeder's coalition partners in the federal government, made gains in both states.

In Hesse, the Christian Democrats won an absolute majority and can run the state on their own. CDU party leader Edmund Stoiber called the result of Sunday's polling "a vote of no confidence in the Socialist chancellor," and promised to "force a change in German politics."

This is no idle threat, observers say. By winning in one of Germany's biggest states, the CDU has effectively gained control of the Bundestat, the upper house in Germany's Parliament, whose members are nominated by the state governments and have power of veto over legislation proposed by the government.

In Hesse vote projections, which are usually reliable in Germany, showed the CDU winning with 48.8 percent (up from 43.4 percent in the last election), the SPD slipping to 29.1 percent (39.4 percent previously), the Greens gaining at 10.1 percent (7.2 percent), and the liberal Free Democrats Party at 7.9 percent (5.17 percent).

In Lower Saxony, the SPD slipped to 33.8 percent (47 percent in the last previous election), and the CDU won with 46.4 percent (35.9 percent), with the Greens at 8.7 percent (7.6 percent) and the Free Democrats, who failed to reach the 6 percent threshold to qualify for seats in the state Parliament making a comeback this time with 8.4 percent.

As the result disastrous Social Democrat result took shape Edelgard Bulmahn, Social Democrat leader in Lower Saxony said, "We will take this sign very seriously and draw the conclusions." Another party official in Hanover, capital of Lower Saxony, described the outcome more succinctly as "catastrophic."

Schroeder tried to capitalize on the national anti-war mood, but the voters' seemed to be unimpressed by his defiance of U.S. pressure to support war in Iraq. Their main concern was Schroeder's handling of Germany's economic problems.

Analysts said the voters were taking revenge for months of almost uninterrupted bad news since the September elections. Tax rises and cuts in Germany's once vaunted cradle-to-grave social benefits were piled up on problems of rising unemployment, a widening budget deficit and a pessimistic outlook for the future.

Sunday's shift to the right could force Schroeder to introduce some of the bold economic reforms he has been avoiding so far so as not to alienate his own left wing, and his Green political allies, such as loosening the tightly regulated labor market, and cutting back further on social benefits.

In the coming months, he can look forward to increasing conservative pressure. The next state election — in summer — will be in Bavaria, the German right's biggest stronghold.

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