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German Press Review: Day of Reckoning for Hamburg

Germany's top dailies on Wednesday pondered the future of Hamburg in the wake of the fall of the city-state's government in after a blackmail scandal involving its mayor and neo-populist coalition partner.

Hamburg’s government has been the object of considerable public interest, as it included the right-wing populist party of Ronald Schill, nicknamed "Judge Merciless" for the heavy handed sentences he liked to impose during his tenure as a local judge. Schill himself was forced from office in August in a blackmail scandal, and now the conservative mayor is dissolving the coalition, saying bickering among the parties is damaging the city’s image. All the German papers agreed that mayor Olaf von Beust did the right thing.

The General-Anzeiger in Bonn praised him for the decision, at the same time criticizing him for not having done so months ago. The price the Christian Democrats paid to get back into power in Hamburg was dangerously high, wrote the Rhein-Zeitung in Koblenz. "It was all very well for von Beust to denounce Schill back in August as ‘not having the character required of a Senator’,"the paper wrote. "The question is why it took him so long to realize this."

The Westfälische Anzeiger in Hamm commented that, "although Schill is clearly primarily responsible for the crisis, the mayor also bears his share." It was von Beust himself, afterall, "who ignored all the warnings and made ‘Judge Merciless’ socially acceptable," the paper concluded.

Meanwhile, Düsseldorf’s Westdeutsche Zeitung likened von Beust’s political experiment to one that might take place in a chemistry lab. "It simmered, and it stank, and then there were a lot of uncontrolled explosions," the editors wrote, "and in the end the failed political chemist has been left with a sooty face and singed eyebrows."

Munich’s TZ newspaper analyzed the phenomenon represented by Ronald Schill, who came from nowhere to win an extraordinary 19.4 percent in the Hamburg elections two years ago. "These kinds of loners pop up suddenly and fill halls with their oratory skill," the paper observed. "They’re hungry for power, they start a party and, in the beginning, they’re successful." But the end is always the same: "One-person parties quickly wither away," the paper concluded.

However, Cologne’s Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger warned that Schill’s blend of personal charisma and his appeal to ordinary citizens’ authoritarian instincts will ensure he doesn’t just disappear. "More than one splinter group is bound to be drawn to him," the paper cautioned.

As a result of von Beust’s decision, fresh elections will be held in the city early next year, and it seems fairly clear that the scandal will damage the conservatives’ chances.

Bonn’s General-Anzeiger is predicting a return of the veteran Social Democrat-Green Party coalition.The Südkurier in Konstanz also remarked that the SPD has been given the chance to get back into power earlier than expected. "Not that it’s earned it," snapped the paper’s editors, who believe "it was the SPD that drove discontented voters into the arms of the Schill Party in the first place." Nonetheless, the paper opined, "the conservative mayor may well have to hand in his badge, even though he is personally very popular."

Meanwhile the editors of the Leipziger Volkszeitung in eastern Germany wrote that they were mystified as to how von Beust could speculate on a return of the current coalition arrangement, of the Christian Democratic Union, the liberal Free Democrats and the Schill Party minus Schill. "The political situation in Hamburg is divided between a degenerate SPD, a feeble FDP, a damaged CDU and the Greens in the opposition," the paper wrote, "but there’s no need to follow up one failed experiment with another."