Kohl draws encouragement from state election

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THERE appeared to be good news for Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU), with mere crumbs of comfort for the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), in a regional election in eastern Germany yesterday. The SPD seemed to have missed, by a whisker, the victory against the CDU that it hoped for and which, a few months ago, seemed within easy grasp.

The election in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt is the last election before the autumn in this 'Super-Election Year' and is seen as giving an important signal for the national elections in October. The Social Democrats badly needed to do well after poor results in the European elections this month. According to early projections after polls closed yesterday evening the CDU was just ahead, with around 35 per cent of the vote, with the Social Democrats 1 per cent behind.

The CDU regional prime minister, Christoph Bergner, thus looked set to remain in office. But he will no longer be able to rule with the Free Democrats (FDP), his coalition partners until now. The FDP, which is also the CDU's coalition partner in Bonn, failed to cross the 5 per cent hurdle and is thus no longer represented in the regional parliament. The FDP has repeatedly failed to make it past the post in elections recently.

Given that the FDP is out, it now seems inevitable that the new regional government will consist of a 'grand coalition' of CDU and SPD. Mr Bergner made it clear last night that he was ready for such a coalition with his challenger, Reinhard Hoppner, of the SPD. The SPD would prefer to create its own coalition with the Greens, which gained around 6 per cent.

The Social Democrats gained considerably, by comparison with 1990, when they gained only 26 per cent of the vote. The Christian Democrats were down several percentage points but the clearest losers were the FDP, which gained barely a quarter of its share of the vote in 1990. The FDP's general secretary, Werner Hoyer, admitted that the result was a debacle. Repeating an increasingly familiar pattern in recent months, the clearest winner was the PDS, successor party to the East German Communist Party. The PDS raised its share from 12 per cent in 1990 to around 20 per cent. The far-right Republicans gained 1 per cent.

Politicians of other parties have floundered in their response to the successes of the PDS, and some west German conservatives have called for a ban. Given that the party now regularly gains more than 20 per cent this goes down badly, even among those opposed to the PDS. President Richard von Weizsacker warned yesterday against the deliberate exclusion of PDS voters from political discussion. The turnout was low, 54 per cent, down from 65 per cent four years ago.

The CDU suffered badly last year because of a corruption scandal, the so-called 'salary affair', when several ministers resigned.