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Despite Prosperity, a State's Voters Might Go for Breath of Opposition's 'Fresh Air'

A trend leftward in European politics may add to woes of Baden-Wuerttemberg's ruling Christian Democrats, who must live down the scandals and ineptness that have rocked their party at the national level.

March 23, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STUTTGART, Germany — Last time the wealthy burghers of Baden-Wuerttemberg went to the polls for a state election, the purring economic engines of automobile production and agriculture drove the conservatives to victory in 69 of 70 directly elected parliamentary contests.

But so much has changed here and throughout Europe in the last five years that the iron grip that the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, had on the levers of power in this industrial stronghold for half a century has corroded.

Even with unemployment here the lowest of any German state, the once-highflying incumbents could be destined to learn the lesson of last year's U.S. presidential election: that prosperity is no guarantee against botching reelection.

"Fresh air" is the battle cry of the leftist Social Democrats, whose candidate for governor, the sporty, single 36-year-old lawyer Ute Vogt, couldn't provide more contrast with incumbent Erwin Teufel. The two are running neck and neck in popularity polls.

In neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, which, like Baden-Wuerttemberg, holds state elections Sunday, the Social Democrats are expected to strengthen their hold on Parliament as well as easily retain the upper hand in a new coalition with the liberal Free Democrats.

The CDU throughout Germany has been weighed down for more than a year by the baggage of financial wrongdoing at the party's national level, a scandal that forced once-beloved former Chancellor Helmut Kohl to resign as CDU honorary chairman. It also suffers from feuding among its lackluster new leaders. Party chief Angela Merkel, parliamentary leader Friedrich Merz and the governor of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, of the CDU's sister party in that state, the Christian Social Union, are all openly vying to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in next year's general election.

Even more damaging to the CDU--which has held the governorship here for 48 years--have been political backfires of its own making, such as an ad campaign showing Schroeder in wanted-poster mug shots for alleged "pension fraud"--after his reform of the country's retirement system.

The ads, launched in behalf of Baden-Wuerttemberg's CDU candidates, were withdrawn 24 hours after their unveiling.

Just last week, CDU leaders loosed another blunder with their call for genetic fingerprinting of all 41 million males in the country to aid in the search for sex offenders--an idea that outraged civil rights advocates, including Merkel.

Most polls show the CDU still slightly ahead in Baden-Wuerttemberg, with the incumbents garnering about 40% compared with 36% for the Social Democrats. But the Free Democrats, who share power with Teufel's party, have been flirting with defection, and that would give the Social Democrats, already aligned with the Greens, the possibility of ruling in a new, three-way coalition.

"None of the traditional supports for the CDU are reliable nowadays. Even the farmers and vintners are angry because they feel they are losing too much to European Union integration," said Wolfgang Bebber, a state lawmaker for the Social Democrats.

The campaign has been waged mostly over education and ways of ensuring continued prosperity by attracting trained foreign labor to fill a demographic gap. But in the same way that the U.S. presidential election proved more a contest of styles and personalities than a referendum on economic performance, the real choice on the ballot here is between a shift toward Europe's generally center-left direction or retention of the tenuous status quo.

Vogt and her fellow Social Democrats have been aided by the national disarray of their opponents, but they have also borrowed pages from the U.S. campaign playbook, using focus groups and media consultants to a degree unheard of in the rigidly structured world of German party politics.

Martin Gerster, a German who spent last autumn as an intern on the U.S. Senate campaign staff of Hillary Rodham Clinton, brought back with him front-line experience in selling conservatives on the leadership potential of strong-willed women.

"Ute Vogt doesn't provoke the kinds of emotions Hillary Clinton does, so we think her chances are good," the young campaigner said. "People here want change, even if they don't know why. It's a lot like it was in the United States."

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