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Germany

Schröder Takes Blame For Devastating Defeats At Polls

Voters in two German states let German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder know that they do not like the direction of his new government.

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Feeling the pressure: German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on Monday in Berlin

This time, there was no reason for the grand gesture, the hands clasped triumphantly over the head, the thumbs pointing victoriously skyward. Rather this was a time for the hands of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to remain fastened to the speaker's podium as he appeared before the media on Monday to analyze something he described as one of his "most bitter defeats."

Actually, it was two defeats that the Social Democrat suffered Sunday, when voters used two state elections to take their wrath out on Schröder's government just more than four months after it was re-elected. Their action was unmistakably clear: They drove the Social Democrats out of power in Schröder's home state for the first time in 13 years and gave the opposition Christian Democrats an absolute majority in a state farther to the south.

On Monday, Schröder accepted the blame for the debacles. "The responsibility of the federal government and my own responsibility played the decisive role," he said.

Opponent suggests resignation

Edmund Stoiber, the opposition politician who lost to Schröder during September's national election, also blamed the chancellor for the defeats and suggested there was one simple to solution to the situation. "Either the chancellor forces the Social Democrats to accept his reform plans, or he must resign," said Stoiber, who heads the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union.

But Schröder rejected any mention of resignation. "I am not thinking about it, and nobody else is thinking about it either," he said.

The chancellor was forced to address such questions after voters in his own home state of Lower Saxony and the central state of Hesse went to the polls Sunday to pick new state legislatures.

In the northwestern state of Lower Saxony, the Social Democrats watched in horror as the opposition Christian Democrats fell just one seat short of winning an absolute majority in the state assembly. At the same time, the Social Democrats 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.

Christian Democrat's historic victory

Roland Koch

The victor: Roland Koch of Hesse

In Hesse, the damage was worse. Christian Democrat Roland Koch became the party's first premier ever to win re-election in a traditionally social democratic state. And he did it in grandly, 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.

For Schröder, the election results are more than a simple loss of face, which he can soon get over. 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 about half of the measures passed by the country's parliament in Berlin.

First, the election adds six seats to the opposition's 35-seat majority, the minimum number of seats for a majority. Second, and possibly more important, the opposition now holds a majority in the conference committee that the Bundesrat and parliament use to seek compromises on issues.

Despite these gains, Schröder's coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens has one remaining piece of power it can wield against its political foes. The coalition still controls an absolute majority in the parliament, and with these votes it can ultimately vote down the members of the Bundesrat.

In addition, the major opposition parties are still a long way from having a two-thirds majority, 46 votes, in the Bundesrat. With such a majority, they could overrule the parliament, where the same two-thirds majority would be necessary to beat back the challenge.

Opposition gains confidence

Even with the limitations, members of the Chrisitian Democratic Union and its Bavarian 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," Stoiber said.

The political battle being waged between Schröder and his opposition is about finding solutions to the country's pressing financial, social and economic problems. In the fours months since Schröder's re-election, voters have been hit by a downpour of troubling news. Unemployment crossed the 10 percent barrier in December, meaning 4.2 million people are out of work -- nearly as many people as live in the eastern state of Saxony. The country's economy is thought to have just skated around a recession by growing only 0.2 percent last year. The deficits of the country's public health insurance are expected to have ballooned to €2.5 billion ($2.68 billion) last year. And the government's own budget deficit has drawn repeated warnings from the European Union, which enforces the stability pact governing the euro.

Leaders of Germany's business community used the election results to renew their calls for changes that will wipe away the problems choking Europe's biggest economy. "The federal government has to do an immediate about-face on economics issues," said Michael Rogowski, head of the Federation of German Industries.

But, as in previous debates, one of the country's major unions expressed worries about the directions the changes could take as the Social Democrats are forced to listen to their political opponents. "Naturally, the mainstream parties have to cooperate," said Klaus Zwickel, who heads the IG Metall union. But Zwickel said the Social Democrats must ensure that the party remains committed to socially just principles.

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