Kohl crows as opposition falters

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The Independent Online
Germany's dispirited opposition tried to put a brave face yesterday on the drubbing it suffered in elections to three regional assemblies, but the fighting words failed to hide their disappointment.

The "first visible success", was how Oskar Lafontaine, the Chairman of the Social Democrats, described the party's pyrrhic victories in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Schleswig-Holstein, in Sunday's poll. The SPD had scraped a victory, but its share of the vote plummeted by about 6 per cent in both states, and it is now forced to court possible coalition partners. Others in the SPD felt less triumphant, blaming the party's campaign against immigration and European Monetary Union in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg.

"That has brought nothing," Andrea Nahles, leader of the party's youth wing, said. "We urgently need a new strategy; we cannot go on like this."

Those words were almost identical to those which Mr Lafontaine uttered last November in ousting the then party leader, Rudolf Scharping.

Mr Lafontaine promised to reinvigorate the party, but so far his populist sloganeering has been more noticeable than any issues of substance. The campaign in Baden-Wurttemberg, encouraged by Mr Lafontaine, earned notoriety for the party; a factor which contributed to the SPD's poor show in the other two states.

The party was guilty of "relentless opportunism", said the SPD's deputy chairman, Herta Daubler- Gmelin. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose Christian Democrats improved their score slightly, while his coalition partners, the Free Democrats, achieved their best results in years, was quick to capitalise on his victory.

"We now have a clear mandate," he declared. Mr Kohl has a clear run until national elections scheduled for 1998, in the knowledge that his coalition is secure. Mr Kohl accused the Social Democrats of conducting a "shabby campaign", and described the SPD's performance as "a setback, whose name is Oskar Lafontaine".

Under Mr Lafontaine's leadership, the Social Democrats have improved in opinion polls, but not enough to threaten Mr Kohl, despite the economic recession. Their strategic goal of forming a coalition government in Bonn with the Greens after the next election also seems to be under threat.

On Sunday the Greens confirmed their steady progress, easily gaining seats in the three assemblies. But their success owes a great deal to the SPD's failure. The Greens appear to have swept up many disaffected Social Democrat voters who are turned off by Mr Lafontaine's leadership.

At the same time, colaition tensions between the Greens and the Social Democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia have undermined confidence in the SPD, but appear to have had no impact on the Green vote.

Mr Kohl is expected to use his "renewed mandate" to tackle the country's severe economic crisis. He has pledged to create 2 million jobs by the year 2000, while the Free Democrats in his government are promising tax give-aways.

More noticeable in the near future will be the effects of the budget cuts which Mr Kohl needs to make in order to make Germany fit for European monetary union.

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