Voters punish Schröder's party for reforms

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The Independent Online

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats suffered another humiliating defeat in regional elections in the west German state of Saarland yesterday where his party lost nearly 14 per cent of the vote to the state's governing conservatives.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats suffered another humiliating defeat in regional elections in the west German state of Saarland yesterday where his party lost nearly 14 per cent of the vote to the state's governing conservatives.

In an election dominated by discontent over Mr Schröder's programme to reform the German economy, the Social Democrats polled only 30.5 per cent of the vote compared to the conservatives' 48 per cent.

It was the worst showing for the Social Democrats for more than a decade in Saarland. Peter Müller, the state's Christian Democrat Prime Minister said: "We have increased our absolute majority but I attribute much of my party's victory to the Social Democrats' failure to explain their reform programme to the electorate."

The Social Democrat defeat was the third suffered by the party since Mr Schröder's launch last year of his widely disputed Agenda 2010 programme. The project aims to kick-start Germany's ailing economy and reduce the country's 4.6 million unemployment problem with a series of cuts to unemployment and welfare benefits.

Heiko Maas, Saarland's Social Democrat challenger, said: "The party is facing an uphill battle throughout Germany because of the government's reform programme."

Social Democrat Party officials in Saarland admitted the decision by Mr Schröder's former left-wing Finance Minister, Oskar Lafontaine, to campaign for the party during the regional election had further damaged its chances. Mr Lafontaine was forced to resign as Social Democrat party leader and Finance Minister in 1999 following policy disagreements with Mr Schröder. He has since attempted to make a political comeback as a champion of the far left.

The Saarland poll result mirrored the Social Democrats' unpopularity across Germany where opinion polls published at the weekend gave the party 26 per cent of the vote compared with 46 per cent for the opposition Christian Democrats.

Mr Schröder's party is already smarting from the Social Democrats' worst-ever regional election result in the port city of Hamburg earlier this year, where the conservative Christian Democrats obtained an absolute majority for the first time since the Second World War.

The party faces two further tests in a fortnight's time when voters in the east German states of Saxony and Brandenburgelect new regional governments. The Social Democrats are expected to suffer at the hands of the reform communist Party for Democratic Socialism.

In east Germany, where unemployment is currently running at around 20 per cent, opposition to Mr Schröder's reforms is at its strongest. Mass demonstrations against the plan to cut benefits for the jobless have attracted tens of thousands of protesters.

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