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Germany

Schröder's Party Suffers Bruising Poll Defeat in Hamburg

Voters in Hamburg delivered a stinging defeat to Chancellor Schröder's Social Democrats in Sunday polls, reflecting discontentment with the party's drive to trim welfare-state benefits as part of far-reaching reforms.

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Hamburg's Christian Democrats rejoice at the clear victory margin.

The Christian Democratic incumbent mayor, Ole von Beust (photo),

Ole von Beust

Ole von Beust.

won an absolute majority in the elections, getting 46 percent of the vote. Schröder's Social Democrats netted only 30.5 percent, the worst result for the party in a city they dominated until von Beust's 2001 victory.

"We now alone carry the responsibility for Hamburg's future," an ebullient von Beust told the Bild newspaper.

The Christian Democrats clear victory marked the beginning of an active and, for Schröder, long year in which five state elections and eight municipal elections will measure the popularity of the embattled SPD.

"This is a clear signal for the election year," CDU party boss Angela Merkel told reporters.

Drawing encouragement from the Hamburg election, Merkel promised clearer ideas from the CDU in areas such as pension and tax reform.

Greens bring hope, but not enough for SPD

Not even a glowing result for the Green party, who are in a national coalition with Schröder's SPD, could rescue the Hamburg Social Democrats. The Greens won 12.3 percent of the vote, almost four percent points more than in 2001.

Hamburg’s 1.2 million voters have not been immune to the rising unemployment in Germany and the stagnating economic growth that have dogged Schröder’s government since he first came to power in 1998. The city-state, which last year had Germany’s highest per capita gross domestic product and gross wages, also has a jobless rate that rose from 8.3 percent in 2001 to 9.9 in 2003.

Denk ich an Deutschland

Schröder has a lot to think about.

The chancellor's unpopular "Agenda 2010" reform package, which seeks to downsize Germany's welfare system and job protection laws, has created additional waves of discontent in recent months.

"It ... is clear that we in national politics didn't give Hamburg a strong tailwind," said the soon-to-be secretary general of the SPD, Franz Müntefering.

Law-and-order party out of government

Another clear loser in the Hamburg election was the Party for a Law-and-Order Offensive. The party rode a wave of paranoia and law enforcement concerns to victory following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. But party leader Ronald Schill left both the party and the government after allegations that he planned to expose a homosexual affair between von Beust and a city official. The party on Sunday failed to reach the 5 percent hurdle for participation in government.

The infighting led to the collapse of von Beust's government in December and his decision to call early elections. Buoyed by the mayor's enduring personal popularity, the CDU resolved to win an absolute majority in Hamburg. On Sunday, Hamburg's voters gave it to them. ´

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