Far-right celebrate triumph in Hamburg poll

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The Independent Online

Germany's far right celebrated the emergence of a new leader last night after the stunning triumph of the uncompromising judge Ronald Schill in elections to Hamburg's regional parliament.

According to preliminary official results, "Judge Merciless", as he prefers to be called, gained 19.4 per cent of the votes and looks poised to play a central role in the new regional government. Mr Schill founded his party only a year ago and campaigned on a tough law-and-order ticket that was tinged with carefully chosen anti-foreigner rhetoric.

His cause received a fresh boost in the past two weeks with the discovery that a "nest of terrorists" linked to the attacks on New York and Washington had lived in Hamburg. The 42-year-old judge had promised to halve the crime rate in his first 100 days as regional interior minister, and double the number of police officers.

He now looks likely to get his chance. The Social Democrats, who had governed Germany's richest city for 44 years, won about 36.5 per cent of the vote, the state election office said. Their Green coalition allies lost heavily. The two left-wing parties no longer have a majority.

Mr Schill's Party for Law and Order Offensive is expected to form a coalition with the Christian Democrats ­ who won 26.2 per cent of the votes ­ and the liberal Free Democrats who won 5.1 per cent. The Christian Democrats have already promised Mr Schill his coveted post at the interior ministry as a reward for his support.

The shock of last night's results will be felt throughout Germany. Rarely has a far-right party gained so many votes in the post-war years, and never in one of the prosperous urban centres of the West. Although Hamburg's Social Democrats had successfully cut unemployment by a third in the last four years, they were undone by uncertainty in the streets. Fear of a soaring crime rate and the large influx of foreigners has been prevalent for years. This is the first time, though, that a new kind of politician has been able to harness it to his cause.

At election meetings, Mr Schill spoke of "breaking a taboo" by spelling out the alleged link between immigrants and crime. He said all drug-dealers were "black Africans", complained of prisons being "full of foreigners" and advocated shipping asylum-seekers "back to Africa".

Hamburg has a higher foreign population than other German cities, but historically it has been a model of tolerance and multiculturalism. Revelations about five of the key actors in America's tragedy having lived peacefully in the city for years created a well of resentment and fear.

Mr Schill gained his nickname after a series of shockingly harsh sentences meted out on petty criminals. He built his party on this hardline reputation, sustained by yet more outrageous views. He advocates castration of sex offenders and "less comfort" for prisoners in the city's jails.

He voices his views, though, in the most moderate of tones. The grandson of a communist executed by the Nazis during the war, Mr Schill has made it clear that he will have no truck with neo-Nazis.

He represents a new kind of politics typified by the handsome, well-educated professional. In short, he is the leader the German far right has soughtfor years.

His success spells danger for all the mainstream parties, but particularly for Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats. Time and time again, regional elections have shown that there is great voter potential for candidates willing to link law and order issues with latent xenophobia.

The Berlin government has been drawing up a new immigration law that would open the country to even greater foreign influences, but Hamburg has demonstrated that patience with creeping multiculturalism is running out. Mr Schröder will now almost certainly ditch the immigration law, and nationwide the Christian Democrat opposition can be expected to revive their intense interest in the "foreigner question".

Mr Schill, beaming at the election results, offered a promise. "We will put pressure on criminals and take the criminals off the backs of Hamburg citizens," he said. "We will make Hamburg as safe as Munich or Stuttgart."