Kohl's party dealt heavy blow in elections

Christian Democrats lose in Schleswig-Holstein in wake of financial scandal


KIEL, Germany -- Germany's Christian Democratic Union, punished for the financial scandal that has engulfed the party and its former chancellor, Helmut Kohl, crashed to a heavy defeat yesterday by the governing Social Democrats in an election in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.

The result amounted to the first concrete confirmation of the Christian Democrats' electoral plight since the financial scandal broke late last year.

Three months ago, opinion polls showed Volker Ruehe, Kohl's last defense minister and the party's candidate for premier in Schleswig-Holstein, with a seemingly unassailable 10 percentage-point lead over the Social Democrats.

But then Kohl admitted taking more than $1 million in secret -- and therefore illegal -- payments from unidentified donors, and the center-right party that had governed Germany for most of the postwar years went into a tailspin.

For all his insistence that the vote was about conditions in this state of 2.8 million people, and not about the Christian Democrats' national woes, Ruehe, 57, could not reverse a slide accentuated by Kohl's continuing refusal to obey the law and name his donors.

Reliable projections from German television showed the Social Democrats gaining 43.3 percent of the vote, an increase of 3.5 percent from the last election here in 1996, and the Christian Democrats with 34.9 percent, a drop of 2.3 percent.

Fireworks lighted the night sky over this port city as the results returning the Social Democratic state premier, Heidi Simonis, to office were announced. She will continue to govern in a coalition with the Green Party, which took 6.1 percent of the vote.

Ruehe, sometimes called the Rambo of German politics for his bruising style, campaigned long and hard in this largely agricultural state. Yesterday, he attempted to put a positive spin on the defeat.

"I averted a catastrophe," Ruehe insisted. "The Christian Democratic party has at least been stabilized."

A "catastrophe" for the Christian Democrats would have involved a drop below 30 percent in this state, which has changed hands many times since World War II and been a useful bellwether of party political fortunes.

But the evidence that any real "stabilization" has been achieved appeared slender. Ruehe had a clear interest in portraying the result in the best possible light because he is a candidate to succeed Wolfgang Schaeuble as leader of the Christian Democratic party. Schaeuble, who has also admitted taking illegal funds, quit this month.

Even someone of Ruehe's stature could not hurt the Social Democrats in a state where unemployment has hovered around 10 percent. It is far from clear that the Christian Democrats have reached the nadir of their travails.

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