German state elections could signal national trends, strength of far right

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 percentage points 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 its national fortunes.

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.

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

Social Democrats promise that if Mr. Engholm retains his majority, he will be 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.

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