BERLIN — Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ruling coalition swept five of six state elections Sunday, four of them in what was East Germany. The show of strength leaves Kohl the overwhelming favorite to retain the chancellor's post in national elections just seven weeks away.
"It's a good starting point," Kohl said in a television interview. "But we've got to fight for every vote (in the Dec. 2 elections)."
In addition to giving Kohl the inside track to become the first freely elected all-German chancellor in nearly 60 years, the extent of the coalition parties' victory Sunday also enabled his government to recapture a majority in the Bundesrat, the federal Parliament's upper house, whose composition is determined by election outcomes in the country's 16 states.
The Social Democratic Party, Kohl's main opposition, had won a majority in the Bundesrat last spring and used it to exert an influence at the national level, including pressure on the government for changes in the treaties that accomplished German reunification.
As vote-counting continued late into the evening, it was clear that Kohl's Christian Democratic Union had emerged as the dominant party in four of the five newly created states in what used to be East Germany, while its main coalition partner, the Christian Social Union, easily recaptured the important stronghold of Bavaria.
Nearly a third of Germany's 57 million eligible voters are residents of the six states where elections were held Sunday.
In heavily industrialized Saxony, largest of the reconstituted states, the Christian Democrats won a clear majority. They scored a plurality in the states of Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.
Only in Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, did the Social Democrats win a plurality. But even there, with only 39%, the Social Democrats will almost certainly be forced to govern in coalition with the Christian Democrats.
Analysts cited the large number of former East German civil servants living in Brandenburg, together with the Christian Democrats' controversial presidential candidate, former East German Interior Minister Peter-Michael Diestel, as the main reasons for the Social Democratic success there.
In East Germany's final months, Diestel was widely viewed as soft in going after senior members of that now-extinct country's once-dreaded security police, known as the Stasi.
Kohl's main opponent for the chancellorship, the Social Democrats' Oskar Lafontaine, called Sunday's results "mixed," but they were in fact such a crushing defeat for his party that few political analysts believe it can recover any real momentum before Germany goes to the polls in December to choose its first all-German Parliament in nearly 60 years.
"At the moment it looks good for the government," Lafontaine admitted in a television interview. But he added, "The results could change in seven weeks."
Chances for that seem slim. The Social Democrats suffer crippling organizational problems in the east and must cope with serious tensions within their national leadership and between the former West and East German wings.
The extent of these difficulties was reflected in pre-election opinion surveys showing that in four of the five eastern states, the Social Democrats had the more popular candidates, yet still lost in all but one instance.
Sunday's results were largely a repeat of East German national elections last March that brought a Christian Democrat-led coalition to power with a mandate to negotiate unification as quickly as possible. That mandate was fulfilled earlier this month.
Former East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere, now a minister without portfolio in Kohl's all-German Cabinet, said the Christian Democratic victory was an acknowledgement of his government's success in bringing about economic, monetary and political union.
He said it also reflects the people's desire to break up the old East German central authority by creating the five new state governments.
"For me, what is important is the end of the central state, that the people can now resolve their problems in their own home areas," De Maiziere said. "The (March parliamentary) elections marked the demise of the old order; these elections represent the consolidation of the new order."
Creation of the new state governments is also seen as a major step in breaking central bureaucratic resistance to the major changes needed to convert the east's state-planned economy into a free-market economy.
The neo-Stalinist leadership that ruled East Germany for four decades, until late last year, had dissolved the state governments in 1952 and concentrated power centrally.
The results of Sunday's voting, as did those of the two earlier elections held since the collapse of the Communists, also cut against the grain of a long-held conventional notion that the region's northern, predominantly Protestant orientation would probably give a united Germany a built-in Socialist majority.
"I personally believe that if anyone had dared to project one year ago that the Christian Democrats would place four of the five state presidents, no one would have believed him," Kohl said.
Kohl, who campaigned heavily in the states, took personal credit for the results.
"I was heavily involved in this success, and I believe there's a lot of hope that's been pinned on me personally," he said.
The extreme right-wing Republicans managed to get the necessary 5% minimum of the votes cast to enter the Bavarian state Parliament, but they were shut out in all of the newly created eastern states.