BONN — A party of the extreme right wing scored big gains in a bellwether German local election Sunday in a result seen as reflecting mounting disillusionment and impatience among voters nationally.
The rightist Republikaner party won just over 8% of the vote in elections for local government seats in the affluent western state of Hesse, which includes the country's financial capital, Frankfurt.
In Frankfurt itself, which has a large number of foreigners and one of the country's largest Jewish communities, the party scored even higher, gaining more than 9%. The result gives the Republikaner seats for the first time on local councils in Frankfurt and more than 30 other cities.
The mainstream Social Democratic Party and Christian Democratic Union kept their positions as the two largest parties in the state, but each suffered a decline in its share of the vote, making them big losers in the view of experts and the public.
Sunday's results marked the latest in a series of strong right-wing ballot showings in Germany. During the past year, rightists have gained representation in local or state legislative bodies in Bremen, Baden-Wuerttemburg and Berlin, making Sunday's results another advance in a gradual erosion of unchallenged domination that the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats once took for granted.
The Republikaner campaigned mainly on an anti-immigrant slogan of "the boat is full," a reference directed against the thousands of foreigners who enter Germany each year hoping to take advantage of the country's liberal asylum law to build a new life.
Xenophobia is the key plank in the Republikaner platform, which is strongly nationalistic. One of the party slogans is "Germany for the Germans." The party appeals to voters who favor firm law-and-order measures and oppose the European Community.
In Hesse state's last local elections in 1989, the Republikaner received less than 1% of the vote.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats and the main opposition Social Democrats have repeatedly pledged to work together to slow the influx of asylum seekers and to end the wave of racist attacks against foreigners that has shaken the country, but so far, neither issue has been resolved.
Because of these and other problems, many politicians as well as members of the public had braced for right-wing gains. But there was still alarm at Sunday's results.
Several hundred demonstrators, many carrying placards reading "No Vote for Nazis," gathered in central Frankfurt after the results became known.
"There's a lot of reason for protest voting, but all these reasons aren't enough to vote for the (extreme) right," said Michel Friedman, a Christian Democrat and a leading member of Frankfurt's Jewish community. "The main parties are going to have to work hard to rebuild their credibility. If they don't, then I fear this trend won't stop, and that would be a catastrophe for our democracy."
Added Ignatz Bubis, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany: "It is a bitter experience. I had hoped that the extremist violence would have turned people away (from the right), but that didn't happen."
Although limited to races for local government offices in a single state, Sunday's election was Germany's first since last May's community elections in Berlin. And it was the last scheduled vote of any kind in the country until spring, 1994.
Thus it is viewed as an important test of the national mood. Kohl campaigned in Hesse late last week.
The election came as the chancellor's personal popularity continues to sag and as a crisis of confidence grips Germany's mainstream parties as the problems linked to reunification continue to mount.
While the result was interpreted in part as a vote for the Republikaner's strong anti-immigrant stance, it also seemed to confirm a broader voter disenchantment with the larger, established political parties that have become mired in scandal and preoccupied by bickering while key issues considered crucial to the nation's future go unresolved.
"Pull yourself together!" read the main headline in Sunday's mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag, flanked by photos of Kohl and the leader of the Social Democrats, Bjoern Engholm.
The only party besides the Republikaner to gain substantially in Sunday's election was the alternative Greens, which polled around 11%, up from 9.1% in 1989.
The lowest voter turnout for such an election in the post-World War II era was seen as another sign of growing voter dissatisfaction.
Television commentators stressed that, given the low voter turnout, the two main parties together attracted fewer than 50% of the state's eligible voters.
The Social Democrats, who are in opposition nationally but who control the Hesse state government, lost roughly 7.5% of their 1989 total Sunday, while Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democrats slipped by more than 2%, compared with 1989.
"It's a devastating defeat," summed up Frankfurt's Social Democratic mayor, Andreas von Schoeler.
Aside from not offering any credible alternative to Kohl's ruling coalition, the Social Democrats were hurt by a major scandal last week that touched key aides of party Chairman Engholm.
Engholm's refusal to take action against his aides has drawn widespread criticism.
Meanwhile, Kohl's own coalition has been damaged by scandal and a sense of drift as it flounders in its efforts to agree with the opposition on a credible plan for financing the reconstruction of the former Communist east, for stopping the influx of asylum seekers and for altering the constitution to permit Germany to join its post-World War II allies in U.N.-sanctioned military operations outside Western Europe.