Kohl makes way for a new era

THE BALANCE of power in Europe tilted to the left last night as Helmut Kohl, the world's longest-serving democratic leader, suffered a crushing defeat in Germany's general elections. His departure opens the way to a government led by the Social Democrats' Gerhard Schroder.

"Kohl is gone, Kohl is gone," chanted jubilant supporters, who had flocked in their thousands to the Social Democrat (SPD) headquarters in Bonn.

As provisional results showed a majority of six seats for the "Red-Green" government, leaders of the two left-wing parties met at midnight in an attempt to form the new government.

According to early projections, Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats were trailing Mr Schroder's party by around six points; almost the exact reversal of their respective results four years ago. "After 16 years of government, the Kohl era is at an end today," said Mr Schroder. "The elections have brought about a generational change."

"I stand for economic stability and development ... and continuity in foreign policy," he said, adding that his priority would be the "battle against mass unemployment."

"The 'new centre' of Germany has decided and the SPD has won them back ... it will be our task to modernise our country thoroughly and overcome the logjam of reforms."

The "new centre" in Mr Schroder's parlance is middle-of-the-road voters, those who had cast their votes for Mr Kohl in previous elections. For these, Mr Schroder offered reassurance. "I don't want to do everything different, only better," he pledged.

Mr Kohl, Chancellor for the past 16 years, conceded defeat just an hour after the polls closed. "There is nothing to discuss about this defeat," he said at the headquarters of his Christian Democrat Union (CDU). "The Social Democrats have won the elections." He also announced he would be resigning as chairman of his party.

Konrad Adenauer House, the CDU nerve centre, soon emptied after that. The hearty food prepared in advance was left intact, the crates of drinks not drunk. "We were not able to push through our reform policies, which demanded some sacrifices from people," admitted Peter Hintze, the CDU general secretary.

"The opposition said it could be done without efforts. The people responded to this offer. Now the other side has to show how they will fulfil these promises."

Uncertainty remains about the nature of the next government. According to projections, the Social Democrats together with the Greens might have a majority of a handful of seats in the new parliament. That might be deemed to be too slim, given the unreliability of some "fundamentalist" Green MPs.

The final balance was at the mercy of the smaller parties. Both the Greens and the Free Democrats - the junior party in the outgoing coalition - scraped into the Bundestag with just over 6 per cent of the vote each.

Early results last night suggested the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the barely reconstructed communists of east Germany, had won four seats in Berlin, thus qualifying for about 30 seats in the Bundestag. This might rob the Red-Green coalition of a workable majority.

The Free Democrats, who had governed in the past with the Social Democrats, declared last night that this time they would remain in opposition.That may leave Mr Schroder courting the CDU in an attempt to form a "grand coalition".

Early projections indicated the SPD would win about 289 seats of the 656-seat Bundestag. The CDU and its Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union, were headed for a joint tally of 242 seats.

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