The election in Lower Saxony, Germany's second-largest state, returned Gerhard Schroder as Prime Minister, with 44.3 per cent of the vote, according to provisional final results. His Christian Democrat challenger, Christian Wulff, gained only 36.4 per cent, 5 per cent less than four years ago - and the worst CDU result for 30 years.
Yesterday's poll opens an electoral marathon in Germany, with 19 polls culminating in parliamentary elections in seven months' time in what is known as Super-Election Year. Yesterday's result will send an unwelcome message to the embattled Chancellor Kohl, who has spent 12 years at the top in Bonn, but whose time as German leader may now be drawing to a close.
Mr Schroder had ruled for the last four years in a 'red-green' coalition. That coalition between Social Democrats and Greens now seems set to end - not because of the new electoral weakness of the Greens, nor because of the increased strength of the Social Democrats (SPD), but, paradoxically, because of the losses of an uninvolved minority party, the Free Democrats. The Free Democrats' apparent failure to gain 5 per cent of the vote means that they will lose all of their nine seats, thus paving the way for the SPD's absolute victory last night.
Because of the complicated electoral system, the Social Democrats will thus gain a greater number of seats, even though their proportion of the vote was almost unchanged compared with 1990.
The relations between the Social Democrats and their Green coalition partners have sometimes been difficult in the last four years. But both sides were keen to play down the tensions last night, and to pay tribute to the successes of their co- operation.
This is the first time that a red- green coalition has not only survived for an entire legislative period at state level, but has also gained an increased share of the vote. The Green vote of 5.5 per cent in 1990 rose to around 7 per cent yesterday. Opinion polls suggest that a red- green coalition remains one possibility on a national scale, after the October federal elections.
Mr Schroder - who lost out last year against Rudolf Scharping, in an attempt to become the Social Democrats' national party leader - may regard yesterday's results partly as a personal victory: almost a third of voters in Lower Saxony, according to one recent poll, trust the SPD regionally more than the national party. The Christian Democrats, on the other hand, will have difficulty in deflecting all the political damage from Bonn, even if some of the failure can be attributed to Christian Wulff, their inexperienced 34-year-old candidate.
There was relief among the main parties that the far-right Republican party failed to break through the 5 per cent hurdle necessary to gain seats in the parliament. None the less, the Republicans looked set to more than double their 1.5 per cent share of the vote from 1990, to around 4 per cent.
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