Election defeat imperils chances of German party

April 22, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Chancellor Helmut Kohl's party suffered a double defeat yesterday, when it lost a state government election and control of the upper house of parliament.

The loss was also a personal blow for Mr. Kohl because it came in his home state, Rhineland-Palatinate (or Rhineland-Pfalz), which had been governed by his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for more than 40 years.

In the face of rising national problems, the CDU garnered only 39 percent of the vote, a drop of more than 5 percentage points from the last election results in 1986. The Social Democrats jumped 6 points to 45 percent while the liberal Free Democrats and Greens each received nearly 7 percent. Other parties that didn't clear the 5 percent minimum made up the rest.

The result means that the Social Democrats can form a state coalition government with either the liberals or the Greens.

Although the election affects only the 3.7 million inhabitants of the small state, it is of national importance because it gives the clearest signal yet of Mr. Kohl's continuing slide since he unified Germany last October and handily won re-election in December.

Since then, the national CDU-liberal government has shown little leadership. East Germans have felt neglected because Mr. Kohl and other top leaders make only rare forays into the east. Meanwhile, west Germans feel cheated because the CDU promised that unification would cost nothing and later said that the price of unification would be about $60 billion a year for rest of the decade.

In the face of such political turbulence, Mr. Kohl could have written off Rhineland-Pfalz but decided to stake his name on the outcome. He made an unprecedented 14 campaign appearances on behalf of the local CDU.

Rudolf Sharping, the successful Social Democratic candidate for state governor, said Mr. Kohl only hurt his party. "I'm glad he came. It's a defeat for the CDU in Rhineland-Pfalz and for the CDU of Helmut Kohl," he said.

Hans-Otto Wilhelm, the CDU's gubernatorial candidate, also laid part of the blame for his party's first-ever defeat in Rhineland-Pfalz on the national CDU's doorstep.

"We all lost -- the state and the national CDU lost heavily," Mr. Wil

helm said.

The local CDU's biggest problem, Mr. Wilhelm said, was explaining the decision by Mr. Kohl's government to raise taxes after explicitly promising not to do so. The Social Democrats, by contrast, said before the national elections that tax increases to finance German unity were unavoidable. When they were proved right, they won credibility.

Besides damaging the national government and embarrassing Mr. Kohl in his home state, yesterday's CDU defeat has the more concrete effect of turning the balance of power in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, in favor of the Social Democrats.

The Bundesrat is similar to the U.S. Senate, except that its representatives are not elected but appointed by state governments. The CDU now controls only three of the 11 west German states.

Although in the euphoria of last year's unification the CDU won four of five east German states and regained control of the Bundesrat, yesterday's defeat reverses this trend. The government will have to make more compromises with the left-of-center Social Democrats.

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