A spokesman for the Republicans - who took 8.3 per cent of the vote in Hesse and whose leader, Franz Schonhuber, is a former member of the Waffen-SS - declared that the party had successfully shaken off attempts to stigmatise it and was now well on course to enter the national parliament for the first time in elections due next year. 'The voters are fed up with the larger parties and their failure to solve the country's problems,' said Thomas Frank, a senior Berlin Republican who spent the weekend campaigning in Hesse. 'This result shows that we have now emerged as a credible political force.'
The Republican success in Hesse, which followed an 11 per cent showing in regional elections in Baden-Wurttemberg last year, was achieved primarily at the expense of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), who saw their share of the vote drop by more than 8 per cent to 36.4 per cent. Another victor was the Green Party, which secured 11 per cent. But there was little consolation for Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU) - with their popularity slipping by more than 2 per cent to 32 per cent.
A clearly shaken SPD leadership admitted yesterday that it needed to redefine its role as a party of true opposition that represented the socially weaker members of society. But the party rallied behind its leader, Bjorn Engholm, who has recently been tainted by a scandal involving a party official in his home state of Schleswig-Holstein.
Chancellor Kohl attributed the setback to the 'unusual difficulties' being experienced by German politicians since unification and the rather 'miserable picture' being presented by his own party in recent weeks. CDU colleagues said the SPD had got their just deserts for dragging their feet over agreeing to a 'solidarity pact' to bail out the former Communist east and on moves to halt the wave of asylum-seekers coming to Germany.
Stronger laws to limit the numbers of would-be refugees and a pledge to crack down on crime were high on the Republican platform in Hesse, where the SPD campaigned on a ticket of 'No violence against foreigners'.
Although the Republicans have publicly condemned the wave of xenophobic violence that swept Germany in the second half of last year, Ignatz Bubis, the leader of Germany's Jewish community, yesterday described them as 'wolves in sheep's clothing' and urged mainstream parties to have nothing to do with them.
Other commentators warned that the post-war mould of German politics - dominated by the SPD, the CDU, the Bavarian CSU and the Free Democrats - could be about to break. 'What the Hesse voters have delivered is more than just food for thought,' commented the conservative Die Welt newspaper. 'These are admonitions, warning signals, emergency calls which could have federal consequences.'
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