In a dramatic change of fortune, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) was trounced in Sunday’s regional polls in the state of Saxony-Anhalt by the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU)
The poll in Saxony-Anhalt in eastern Germany was the last one before the country braces itself for parliamentary elections on September 22 and was largely seen as a barometer for the upcoming elections.
The defeat is the worst that the SPD has to swallow since Schröder took office four years ago.
The SPD, which has governed Saxony-Anhalt for eight years with support from the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), slipped to 20.0 percent from 39.5 percent in 1998.
The PDS notched up 20.4 percent of the votes.
The Conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), who back Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber against Schröder in the September parliamentary elections took the lion’s share with 37.3 percent, sharply up from the 22 percent they polled in the last state election.
The defeat is a major blow to Schröder. The fact that the SPD is trailing behind the Communist PDS is a further humiliation for the Chancellor. "Shock for Schröder!" wrote Germany's most widely read newspaper BILD on Monday. "Worst SPD defeat of all time!"
Analysts say that the vote also confirmed that voters in the former Communist east are more fickle than in the west, a factor that may prove decisive if eastern voters abandon Schröder four years after they rallied behind his promises to create more jobs.
The conservative candidate Wolfgang Böhmer (photo) now looks likely to form a government with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who surged to a spectacular 13.3 percent from 4.2 percent in 1998.
If they do, the conservatives will gain a blocking majority in the Bundesrat or upper house of parliament, where Germany’s 16 federal states are represented. That could weaken Schröder's ability to pass legislation.
Saxony-Anhalt, once the industrial heartland of former East Germany, was plunged into crisis after the collapse of communism because of its reliance on heavy industry.
Today the state has an unemployment rate of over 20 percent, the highest among Germany’s 16 states, while per capita income is the lowest.
Despite massive cash injections by the Federal government to spruce up towns and roads and industrial belts, many voters in Saxony-Anhalt are said to identify better with the reformed Communist PDS, descendants of the former Communist party of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). They are said to lack deep ties with the traditional democratic parties of the West.
Chancellor Schröder’s inability to meet an election pledge to get unemployment below the 3.5 percent mark is seen as a major reason for the plummeting fortunes of the SPD in Saxony-Anhalt.