German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats took a drubbing in elections for the European Parliament, as well as regional elections in the eastern state of Thuringia, raising doubts about the party's future.
Confronting the bad news.
Sunday's election results were just the latest in an almost unbroken 18-month run of defeats for the Social Democrats.
Exit polls in elections for the European Parliament showed a dismal slump to just 21.5 percent for the SPD, compared with 44.5 percent for the conservative opposition parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Results for Germany's political parties in the European elections at 21:42 UTC.
The SPD also suffered a landslide defeat in Thuringia's regional elections, sliding to 14.5 percent. Despite a slight dip in popularity, the CDU was able to maintain its absolute majority in the eastern German state.
Capping the SPD's defeat is the fact that the former East German communist party, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) came in a strong second in Thuringia, usurping the SPD's traditional role as the worker's party. In the parliamentary elections, the PDS also improved its standing from the last European election in 1999.
Social Democrats concede 'surprise'
Although the SPD had expected to suffer some losses in the polls, the party's main candidate for the EU parliament, Martin Schulz, conceded that he was "surprised" by how heavy the defeats were. "I didn't think it would hit us so hard," he told German public broadcaster Phoenix. Schulz said that low turnout, particularly for the EU parliamentary elections, which were held on the opening weekend of the Euro 2004 soccer championships, was partly to blame.
"It's a bitter result," said Klaus Uwe Benneter, the SPD's general secretary. Benneter also attributed the painful round of social cuts and economic reforms for the dismal result. Throughout Europe, he said, parties have been punished for their reform policies. "But it would be irresponsible for us to align our policies with election dates and polls."
Most political analysts agree that Schröder has no option but to carry on with his party's reform agenda, although they acknowledge that staying the course could force the SPD into a downward spiral, and usher in a new period of conservative rule in Germany.
Conservative leaders were understandably gleeful about the outcome, with CDU leader Angela Merkel calling it a "disaster" for Schröder's government. "This is a great day for the CDU and a good day for Germany," said CDU General Secretary Laurenz Meyer. He added that the SPD had fallen to a "low point never seen before."
The SPD is hoping to achieve a turnaround in voter sentiment in time for a crucial state election in its stronghold and the country's industrial heartland -- North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). The election there is slated for May, 2005. If the party loses this core state, the conservatives will have a two-thirds majority in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, giving them the power to block all government legislation.
Before the NRW election, the SPD faces three more state polls in September. Pressure is mounting from many party insiders to ease the pace of economic reforms in an effort to save the SPD's fading reputation as the people's party. There is also speculation about a possible cabinet reshuffle.
However, party chief Franz Müntefering insisted there would be no change in policy and no reshuffle despite what he called a "bitter result."
"I'm convinced we're doing the right thing to combine lasting social justice with wealth," Müntefering said.
Strong gains by Greens
As the Social Democrats licked their wounds, their junior coalition partner in Berlin, the Greens, celebrated their best result yet in a European election.
Gains and losses by party in 2004 compared to the 1999 European election.
Green Party chief Reinhard Bütikofer described his party as the day's "true victor." The Green's main parliamentary candidate, Rebecca Harms, said the gains were the result of the environmentally friendly party's "hard work," the strong candidates it put forward, and voter affinity with the Green's platforms on human rights, environmental protection, consumer protection, and agricultural policy.