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CDU Holds Off Challenge by Schroeder's Party in Key State

March 26, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats easily won reelection Sunday in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and shored up their sorry numbers in prosperous Baden-Wuerttemberg, but the Christian Democratic Union's success in holding on to the latter suggests that it may finally be recovering from a series of scandals.

More dramatic than the results for the major parties, though, was the failure of the far-right Republikaners to receive the 5% of votes needed to win seats in a state parliament, which will put an end to their decade-long presence in the Baden-Wuerttemberg legislature.

The mixed results, in which the Social Democrats made impressive advances and the CDU did better than expected, allowed both major parties to declare victory in the last important state vote before next year's general election.

The CDU, which has been mired in scandal tainting senior party members--most notably former Chancellor Helmut Kohl--may have averted disaster in Baden-Wuerttemberg by hijacking the nationalist agenda of the Republikaners. Leading conservatives such as CDU Secretary-General Laurenz Meyer have been urging fellow Germans to be proud and self-confident about their nation--a call for patriotism that would cause little worry in any other country but has rekindled fears of Nazi-like zealotry here against a backdrop of resurgent right-wing violence.

The CDU won 45% of the vote in Baden-Wuerttemberg against 34% for the Social Democrats, although the latter figure was up noticeably from 25% in the 1996 election. In Rhineland-Palatinate, Schroeder's party won 44% of the vote--up from 39% five years ago--and its coalition partner, the Free Democrats, received about 8% to return the incumbents with a solid majority. The liberal Free Democrats share power with the CDU in Baden-Wuerttemberg but had been seen as contemplating a shift of alliance if the conservatives were badly weakened.

With its success in staving off an upset by the Social Democrats' dynamic young gubernatorial candidate, Ute Vogt, the CDU may carry its "I'm proud to be a German" theme into the federal election campaign that will heat up later this year.

Although leaders of the two main parties proclaimed themselves satisfied with what constitutes a status quo for them, all three smaller parties lost votes from the previous election. The Republikaners, who polled over 9% in Baden-Wuerttemberg five years ago, drew only 4% this time. The Free Democrats lost a full percentage point in each state, and the Greens dropped from 12% to 8% in Baden-Wuerttemberg, home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. The environmental party barely cleared the 5% hurdle in Rhineland-Palatinate despite the importance of ecological issues in a state that produces two-thirds of Germany's wine.

"Of course we had hoped for a better result," conceded the Greens' new party leader, Claudia Roth.

The Greens, who have steadily lost ground in state elections over the last two years, were hurt by a brouhaha that has ensued since Environment Minister Juergen Trittin, one of the party's most prominent figures, disparaged Meyer for instigating the German pride debate. He said the CDU chief, who is nearly bald, "not only looks like a skinhead but thinks like one too."

Some political analysts have speculated that Trittin may have to step down as the price for his party's poor showing in both states.

The Social Democrats had been hoping to oust the CDU from Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany's third-most-populous state, with 10.5 million residents, because that would have given the party a clear majority in the upper house of the federal Parliament, the Bundesrat.

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