WIESBADEN, Germany — Germany's besieged Christian Democrats were dealt another setback when a court ordered a reexamination of a 1999 election the CDU won in Hesse state with the help of illegal campaign contributions.
The Hesse parliament electoral review court ruled Friday that the CDU had acted in a fashion "contrary to good morals" by using funds that the party had illegally hidden in foreign bank accounts to help finance the election campaign.
The CDU upset the ruling Social Democrats in the 1999 election, robbing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party of its majority in the upper house of Parliament.
The electoral review court said the CDU in Hesse had financed its campaign from $8.5 million hidden in accounts in Liechtenstein. It said the undeclared funds could have influenced the election.
"There are indications these immoral acts might have influenced the result of the state parliament election in a way relevant to the distribution of seats," said Bernhard Heitsch, chairman of the court.
It was the first time in postwar German history that an election would be reexamined.
At the national level, the CDU has been devastated by a similar slush fund scandal surrounding former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has admitted taking about $1 million in illegal campaign contributions.
The debate over who should lead the CDU out of scandal narrowed Saturday, when one of the leading candidates said he was dropping out of the race.
Volker Ruehe, a former defense minister under Kohl who had been a contender for party chairman, told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper in a report to be published today in Berlin that he will not vie for the post.
Germany's conservatives have been publicly debating who will replace Wolfgang Schaeuble as chairman since he announced last month that he will resign.
Ruehe was the party's losing candidate last weekend to be governor of Schleswig-Holstein state, but he still managed to pull in a larger percentage of votes there than the Christian Democrats were getting in national polls.
The two main remaining candidates to head the party are Secretary-General Angela Merkel, considered the front-runner, and Kurt Biedenkopf, governor of the eastern state of Saxony. The party leadership will decide its recommendation March 20, and will vote on it in April.
Ruehe spoke out for Biedenkopf, 70, in making his exit from the leadership debate.
Meanwhile, the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper reported Saturday that Kohl, who has withdrawn from public life since the scandal, plans to return to Parliament on March 17 for a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the vote that set the stage for Germany's reunification.