Social Democrats win re-election easily in Germany's largest state

Kohl financial scandal undercut challenge by Christian Democrats


BERLIN - The governing Social Democrats won a comfortable victory yesterday in Germany's largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, confirming both the resurgence of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the plight of the opposition Christian Democrats.

Reliable projections from German television gave the Social Democrats 43.5 percent of the vote and the Christian Democrats 37 percent. Before a major financial scandal engulfed the Christian Democrats six months ago, the party appeared poised to win the state, which has been governed by the Social Democrats for 34 years.

But the Christian Democratic candidate, Juergen Ruettgers, was unable to overcome the effects of the scandal, and his decision to try an anti-immigrant message in a level-headed and pragmatic part of Germany backfired.

As a result, Wolfgang Clement, 59, the Social Democratic premier of the state, who has been pursuing the economic transformation of areas once dominated by coal and steel, will remain in office - almost certainly in a coalition with the environmentalist Greens.

Clement resembles Schroeder in that he is a reformist determined to move the party toward the center. He has described himself as the chairman of "North Rhine-Westphalia Inc." - a remarkable title for a Social Democrat to choose in a state where the party's strength long came from organized labor.

But in a state of 18 million people, a major shift is under way from heavy industry toward media, Internet, telecommunications and electronic businesses that now have a major presence in Cologne, Essen, Dortmund and the state capital, Duesseldorf."We benefited from a tail wind out of Berlin, and we are proud of what we have achieved," said Franz Muenterfering, secretary general of the Social Democrats. After an indifferent first year in office, Schroeder's popularity has risen as his policies have become clearer and the Christian Democrats have reeled.

Still, in projections from exit polls and early returns, the Social Democrats' share of the vote appeared to have fallen 2.5 percent from the 46 percent won in the 1995 election. The Christian Democrats' vote appeared to have fallen by about 1 percent. Schroeder has often appeared popular by default rather than through any particular personal appeal.

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