MAGDEBURG, Germany — Here in the troubled eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, where Germany's woes are written large and suffered widely, voters angered by high unemployment, mounting debt and western arrogance voted a government aligned with federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder out of office Sunday.
The surprisingly strong protest vote cast a pall over the Social Democrats and can be expected to give momentum to Schroeder's challenger in the Sept. 22 national elections, archconservative Bavarian Gov. Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union.
In the last state balloting before the increasingly tight federal race, the electoral upheaval in Saxony-Anhalt also gave Stoiber's party and its bigger allies, the Christian Democrats, a slight majority in the upper house of Parliament--a shift likely to paralyze initiatives by Schroeder.
With its shiny new exteriors and bankrupt core, Saxony-Anhalt is a veritable shrine to the failures of the post-reunification policies of Germany's two major parties. Massive federal spending intended to lift living standards in the east was focused on the construction of modern highways, sleek office buildings and glitzy shopping malls, while the nationwide labor-market restrictions that discourage job-creating investment have persisted in Saxony-Anhalt through five years of governance by the Christian Democrats and eight under the Social Democrats.
Sunday's vote for a new state parliament and leadership made it clear that Germans, at least in the more volatile east, want change on more than just the surface. Stoiber's political allies won nearly 38% of the votes--up 16 percentage points from the 1998 state election--which together with the pro-business Free Democrats' 13% gave them the majority coalition needed to govern.
"Our state and the country as a whole need to switch directions. We can't keep throwing taxpayers' money at every problem. We need to attract private investment and entrepreneurs," said Burkhard Kreuzmann, who runs his own plumbing business.
With more than 20% of its residents jobless and an equal number in state-funded make-work programs, Saxony-Anhalt is hardly a microcosm of the federal economy, which has suffered flat growth over the last year but appears to be emerging from its dubious role as the economic laggard of the European Union. But the problems here are replicated in other eastern states, where the more volatile electorate might wield disproportionate clout in the close contest shaping up between Schroeder and Stoiber.
The Bavarian challenger insisted that the vote here was "a very clear signal for Berlin" that Germans are fed up with their leftist leaders.
Many pollsters and analysts had expected the Social Democrats and the former Communists of the Party of Democratic Socialism to each garner about a quarter of the state vote and align to keep Schroeder's party in power. But both barely reached 20%, hinting at broad dissatisfaction with the tax-and-spend approach the leftists have relied on in the states they govern.
The outcome was even worse for the environmentalist Greens, who share power with Schroeder's party at the federal level. They fell far short of the 5% needed to win seats in any state parliament, with only a 1.9% share. After the Greens' unbroken tumble in popularity over the last three years, the vote here may herald the political demise of the party even though the country's most popular figure, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, is a member.
The man expected to emerge as Saxony-Anhalt's governor after coalition negotiations is a 66-year-old gynecology professor, Wolfgang Boehmer, who led the Christian Democrats to victory with promises to create jobs, justice and hope. The young, able-bodied and best-educated among eastern Germans have been fleeing in droves since reunification in 1990, having despaired of finding employment or wage parity. Saxony-Anhalt, which is burdened with the highest jobless rate and lowest per capita earnings of all 16 states, has seen one-fifth of its population move west over the last decade.
Another winning force was the Free Democrats, who tripled their share of the vote from the last election with a warning that Germany needs to make itself more attractive to employers if it wants to create jobs. That is a message likely to get attention across this country, which is saddled with 10% unemployment overall and deepening public debt.
Defeated state leader Reinhard Hoeppner announced minutes after the first results were released that he was withdrawing from public life. The Social Democrats' national chairman, Franz Muentefering, was left to execute damage control, insisting to reporters that this state is hardly a barometer of the national political mood.
Perhaps the biggest loser in the intensifying federal campaign was Ronald Schill, head of the new Law and Order party, who was weighing a national candidacy if his party won 20%. It fell just below the 5% threshold.