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Germany

Schröder Pounded in Two State Elections

Germany's opposition Christian Democrats dealt a severe setback to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats in two states on Sunday. Even one of Schröder's top ministers thinks the government was to blame.

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Roland Koch (left) celebrates his re-election as premier in Hesse with conservative counterpart in Lower saxony, Christian Wulff (right)

German voters took their wrath out on the national government led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on Sunday, delivering devastating blows that drove his party out of power in his home state and gave the opposition Christian Democrats an absolute marjority in another.

Schröder had nothing to say publicly after the vote on Sunday. But one of his top ministers, Wolfgang Clement, conceded that Schröder's government was to blame. "We have made a bunch of mistakes," said Clement, the country's economics and labor minister.

The election was held just over four months after Schröder's narrow re-election in September. Immediately afterwards, his standing began to plummet as state leaders in his party conducted an auction-like debate on tax increases with one speaker after another tossing out an idea.

As the year wore on, the government raised taxes for the country's pension system, and many public health insurance companies boosted their premiums as well. The increases were compounded by troubling reports about the government's rising deficit, which raised the specter of further tax increases and fines imposed by the European Union for breaches in the stability pact governing the euro.

Voters decide its payback time

Having just received their January paychecks and seen what was missing, voters in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony and the central state of Hesse obviously decided to deliver a message to the German chancellor.

In Schröder's home state of Lower Saxony, the Social Democrats were driven from office after 13 years in power in Sunday's elections, with the opposition Christian Democrats falling just one seat short of winning an absolute majority in the state assembly. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, received only 33.4 percent of the vote, 14.5 percentage points less than 1998, when Schröder won an absolute majority on his way to becoming chancellor.

In Hesse, Christian Democrat Roland Koch became the party's first premier ever to win a re-election in a state. This he did in fashion, winning an absolute majority of seats in the assembly. The Social Democrats fell to a historic low, receiving just 29.1 percent of the vote, a drop of 10.3 percentage points from 1999.

Opposition gains national power

For Schröder, the election results are more than a simple loss of face. They also give the countries' two Union opposition parties and the small Free Democratic Party a stronger hand in shaping national policy. The three parties can do so through their representation in the Bundesrat, an assembly of representatives from Germany's 16 states that has a say on many national issues. The election now adds six seats to their 35-seat majority.

However, it is in the conciliation committee that the red-green coalition will face the sharpest winds coming from the opposition. Until the elections, the government had a slim majority of one vote. Now, following Sunday's victory, both sides have the exact number of votes in a commitee which is essential to the solving of disputes over new laws, and at present, for the realisation of the government's reforms.

Members of the Chrisitian Democratic Union and its Bavarian-based sister party, the Christian Social Union, vowed they would take advantage of their new power. "I think we now will be able to force through a change of political direction," said Edmund Stoiber, the head of the Christian Social Union and the Union's parties chancellor candidate in the 2002 elections.

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