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Germany

Critics Pounce on SPD After Bavaria Losses

The landslide win for conservatives in Bavaria’s local elections leaves the ruling Social Democrat party reeling – and calling for changes.

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The landslide victory of Edmund Stoiber (left) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria will place fresh burdens on Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

With a final result of 60.7 percent of the votes, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union won its first-ever two-thirds majority in a state parliament. The result marked the CSU’s strongest showing since World War II.

The broad win boosts Bavaria’s state premier Edmund Stoiber’s standing as a potential challenger to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the next federal election.

A win for the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of the national Christian Democratic Union, was certain from the get-go, but the overwhelming numbers were a blow to the SPD. It made its weakest post-war showing to date, garnering just 19.7 percent of the vote in Germany’s second-largest state. The Green Party edged higher, to 7.7 percent of the vote. None of the other parties got enough votes to win parliamentary seats.

Criticism, and calls from within the SPD for policy changes, followed on the heels of the stinging defeat as Schröder himself accepted responsibility for the result. Yet he vowed to continue on his present course for reform.

'Historic dismantling' of SPD

The chairman of the SPD in the state of Saarland, Heiko Maas, told the Berliner Zeitung the low numbers represent the further “historic dismantling of the SPD” that had already begun with devastating losses in the states of Hesse and Lower Saxony in February.

He blamed the federal government’s reform policies for the defeat, noting that the reforms are alienating typical SPD voters. “That includes the contents of the policies, but also the way in which they are communicated. Something there is going wrong,” he said.

Indeed, voter turnout for the Bavaria election was reported at an all-time low of 57 percent.

“I’ve thought several times that (the SPD) had hit bottom. But you can always be negatively surprised,” Maas said.

More than a local result

Germany’s Minister for Family Affairs, Renate Schmidt, also pinned the loss on national, rather than local, issues.

“It isn’t necessarily a Bavarian result” said Schmidt. Rather, the result reflects Germans’ uneasiness with Schröder’s announced Agenda 2010 package of health, welfare and pension reforms.

“People understand theoretically that we need to initiate reforms. And theoretically they understand the need for spending cuts. But they don’t want to admit that these cuts should apply to them.”

Schröder: 'Bitter defeat'

Schröder also accepted the blame for the result, calling it a “bitter defeat for the SPD.” However, he said he will stick to his planned reform course despite the internal criticisms.

Germany is “in the middle off a difficult reform phase” which stands to affect a lot of people, and “people are afraid of changes,” Schröder said. But economic growth and jobs can only be created through implementation of the Agenda 2010 reforms, he said.

Blessing in disguise?

Indeed, despite internal disappointment, Sunday’s vote may well open the way for Schröder to steer the stalled reform package through parliament this autumn. The conservative opposition can block most of the measures through their control of the upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat.

Talks were at a standstill in the run-up to the election, as Stoiber tried to avoid taking a stance on potentially unpopular cuts -- many of which his party avidly supports. With the election behind them, however, the road is now open for negotiations between the Social Democrats and the conservatives.

"This election sends signals across the nation," Stoiber said. "We will use our majority in the upper house constructively, but we expect the chancellor to move towards us to find solutions to the problems facing the country."