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Opinion: SPD on the Brink of Disaster

Chancellor Schröder and his Social Democrats lost big in the Hamburg election Sunday. The Christian Democrats' overwhelming victory could bode poorly for the future of Schröder's ruling coalition.

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Larger than life: Ole von Beust's huge victory in Hamburg is bad news for Chancellor Schröder

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democrats (SPD) didn't just lose one of a series of election battles on Sunday. They are now perched on the brink of disaster.

The city-state of Hamburg, one of their safest bastions and for decades a Social Democratic stronghold, gave the absolute majority to the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). And the voters did so, despite the fact that the short-lived governing coalition of Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and right-wing populists from former judge Ronald Schill's party was accompanied by perpetual mishaps and blunders.

Ole von Beust, the city's charismatic mayor, did come across better than his rather dry SPD rival, Thomas Mirow. But that alone doesn't explain CDU gains of more than 20 percent over the last election. They arose from the general dissatisfaction with Chancellor Schröder and his SPD-Green party coalition's policies. The reforms necessary to stabilize the social welfare net cut deeper into the assets of exactly that part of society that feels particularly bound to the SPD. The workers' and pensioners' renunciation of the SPD and their gravitation to the CDU proves as much.

Hands tied

Gerhard Schröder continues to resist demands to make repairs to his program of reforms, in the knowledge that the whole system would break down if even one aspect was adjusted. Furthermore, compromises make up a large part of the reform package, compromises that weren't only made with his coalition partner, the Greens, but that were negotiated with the Christian Democratic opposition. Changes could only be made with their agreement. But Schröder can hardly expect that, of all people, the CDU would help him out of the quagmire.

Thanks to their Hamburg success, the Christian Democrats have started this year's series of elections -- which include three more state elections, European Parliament elections and numerous municipal elections -- optimistically. They hope that additional victories will lay the groundwork to regain control next year of Germany's biggest state, North-Rhine Westphalia, after 40 years of SPD rule.

Moving in on SPD-Green

Then, the CDU, its Bavarian sister party CSU and the Union parties' traditional coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, would have a two-thirds majority in the Bundesrat, the upper chamber of parliament, which would allow them to block the SPD-Green majority in the Bundestag, the lower chamber.

Things have not yet gone so far. Since Sunday evening, however, such a disaster for Chancellor Schröder and his coalition has become more likely.

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