Today's German elections to gauge growing strength of far-right parties

April 05, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing Writer

BERLIN -- A pipe-smoking Beau Brummell and a sober farmer are expected to win today's two German state elections, but the size of their victory is being closely watched as a barometer of national politics and the European trend toward right-wing parties.

In northern Schleswig-Holstein, well-dressed Bjorn Engholm is poised to retain the state premiership, but if his Social Democrats do not keep their majority in the legislature, then his other position, as the party's national leader and challenger to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, will be seriously damaged.

In southern Baden-Wuerttemberg the tables are turned, with Erwin Teufel of the other main national party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), striving to keep his majority. Mr. Teufel is facing a stiff challenge from far-right groups, who threaten to enter the state Parliament for the first time in 25 years.

Polls show Mr. Teufel's CDU with about 43 percent of the vote, down 6 percent from the last election. Most of the losses have gone to splinter far-right parties, one of which might surpass the 5 percent minimum required for a party to enter the state Parliament.

As in the recent regional French elections, when the far-right National Front won 14 percent of the vote, support for extremists in southern Germany has more to do with dissatisfaction with the ruling party than widespread support for the far-right's xenophobic policies.

Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany's big, rich state that makes Black Forest cuckoo clocks, Mercedes and Porsches, is the European Community's richest region, but scandals have thrown the CDU on the defensive. Exploiting this, the radical right is expected to eat away at the CDU flank, forcing it to find a coalition partner for the next four years.

Considering that Mr. Teufel took over from his disgraced predecessor only a year ago, this might seem a satisfactory outcome, but Baden-Wuerttemberg is CDU country and the only west German state still under CDU control. A loss of its absolute majority would signal a further decline in the party's national vTC fortunes since it won united Germany's first elections in 1990.

The blame certainly will not fall on Mr. Teufel, a well-respected farmer, but on Mr. Kohl, whose 20-year reign as the head of the national CDU and 10 years as chancellor have seen him crush all rivals, leaving the party a gray union of middle-aged men. Dozens of CDU chapters have no members under 40 years of age, and even more have no women.

This would seem fertile ground for Mr. Engholm's Social Democrats, but they are, as Mr. Kohl once put it, "the nicest opposition imaginable." Too busy tearing each other apart to challenge the CDU nationally, the Social Democrats would be further hurt today if Mr. Engholm were to lose his majority in Schleswig-Holstein.

Mr. Engholm's problem is not the radical right or scandals, but the rural state's natural conservative tilt, which makes it skeptical about his party's left-leaning policies and his taste for expensive suits, fine wine and modern art.

His win four years ago was due to scandals in the local CDU, which drove voters to his party. Since then he has managed to win over the citizens through his moderate policies and inimitable seaman-like pipe.

Social Democrats promise that if Mr. Engholm retains his majority today, he will come out slugging and become a credible opposition leader capable of winning the 1994 elections. A loss, however, would let Mr. Kohl continue to coast through the current turmoil of uniting east and west Germany, probably to overtake Konrad Adenauer as postwar Germany's longest-serving chancellor.

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