Germany's ailing Social Democratic Party (SPD) sought Monday to explain the dramatic losses it suffered in a regional election won Sunday by Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
SPD chief Muentefering says the Hesse defeat won't affect SPD's national aspirations
Party chairman Franz Muentefering said the defeat in the state of Hesse was an "exception" and "in no way" represented a rejection by voters of the SPD's center-left policies.
He blamed the erosion of support on an attempt by the state's party leadership last year to form a minority government backed by the radical Left Party despite campaign pledges not to do so.
SPD Secretary-General Hubertus Heil said the outcome would have no consequences for the SPD at national level where it rules in an uneasy "grand coalition" with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).
Merkel said the result "was a good day for the CDU in Germany" and showed that the conservative camp "has a clear majority" in the run-up to general elections set for September 27.
But it was bad news for Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD candidate who will challenge her for the chancellorship. Both candidates enjoy the same level of popular support, but the SPD is lagging far behind the CDU in opinion polls.
SPD popularity sags
In Hesse, the SPD saw its share of the vote slump to an historic low of 23.7 percent, 13 percentage points less than the previous election in January 2008 when it narrowly failed to unseat incumbent CDU Premier Roland Koch.
Koch has headed a caretaker administration since then.
The CDU polled 37.2 percent, roughly the same as a year ago, and will now be able to form a coalition with its favored partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), which upped its share to 16.2 percent.
CDU Premier Roland Koch, center, had been leading a caretaker government in Hesse
FDP leader Guido Westerwelle called the result "a decisive signal for the general election." He said his party would "act responsibly" with the new powers that would soon be at its disposal.
With a CDU-FDP alliance in Hesse, the two parties will be linked in coalition governments in five of Germany's 16 states, all in the western part of the country.
This would deprive Merkel's CDU-SPD alliance in Berlin of its majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, which is made up of representatives of the federal states.
Centrist SPD's ambitions
The SPD finds itself in a dilemma after repositioning itself as a party of the center last autumn when it ditched embattled Rhineland-Palatinate Premier Kurt Beck as chairman, DPA news agency reported.
Analysts said the party has to find a strategy that will allow it to emerge from the shadow of the CDU without pandering too much to voters on the left of the political spectrum, DPA said.
This will not be easy in view of opinion polls which show the SPD unlikely to win enough votes in September to form a two-way coalition with its preferred partner, the Greens.
If it makes overtures to the Left, which is treated with suspicion among the electorate because of its communist roots, it could risk losing its credibility as a party with centrist ambitions, DPA said.
A test will come in August when regional elections take place in Saxony, Thuringia and Saarland. The Left Party is strong in all three states and could poll more votes than the SPD.
No national deal with Left: Muentefering
A deal with Oskar Lafontaine's Left party could be a dangerous partnership for SPD
National chairman Muentefering has left it open to SPD leaders in the three states to join in a coalition with the Left if it would help to get an SPD candidate elected state premier.
But the SPD has so far ruled out a coalition with the Left at national level, citing that party's stance on foreign affairs, particularly its opposition to the presence of German troops in Afghanistan.
But it might have to rethink this option if the general election in September leaves open the possibility of a three-way coalition between the Greens, SPD and Left, DPA said.
A continuation of the present alliance in Berlin would also be a possibility if the CDU and FDP fall short of their goal of achieving a parliamentary majority.