Kohl safe in state elections as SPD flops

Europe's longest serving leader passed his greatest mid-term test with flying colours yesterday, notching up a remarkable victory for the governing coalition in three German states.

Despite record unemployment, the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats who form Helmut Kohl's government in Bonn increased their share of the vote, while the Social Democrats, the largest opposition party, suffered humiliating setbacks.

Particularly galling for the SPD was their performance in the prosperous southern Land of Baden-Wurttemberg, where they had run a populist campaign against European Monetary Union and the influx of ethnic German immigrants from Eastern Europe. These themes were strongly rebuffed by the voters, punishing the SPD with its lowest share in the state since the war.

More embarrassing still was the by-product of their anti-immigrant slogans: The Republican Party, whose xenophobia had lost its appeal since its successes four years ago, was yesterday sucked back into the state's assembly in the slipstream of the passions stirred up by the Social Democrats.

The clear winners of the night were the Free Democrats, who had not won 5 per cent of the vote, the minimum required to qualify for a seat, in any poll since 1994, and were in danger of disappearinge. They got into all three assemblies, easily passing the 5 per cent hurdle and notching up nearly 10 per cent in Baden-Wurttemberg. "I believe the FDP has now recovered," said the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, a former FDP chairman. "What's happened here and in Rhineland-Palatinate and Schleswig-Holstein also strengthens the coalition in Bonn."

Faced with annihilation, the FDP changed tack last year, discovering Thatcherite economic policies in its drift to the right. Last month it forced its coalition partners, Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats, to embark on a tax-cutting programme. The liberal Free Democrats were heavily criticised by their traditional supporters, but now appear to have picked up enough votes to justify the U-turn.

The Social Democrats have also been changing their policies rather abruptly, but not, it appears, to the voters' liking. The populist streak in Baden- Wurttemberg, encouraged by the party's national Chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, has been judged to be a non-starter. The SPD had argued that the stringent criteria for European Monetary Union were hampering growth and endangering jobs. But successive opinion polls have demonstrated that while Germans fear the abolition of the Deutschmark, they would rather not entrust their currency to the Social Democrats.

Failing to appeal to the right, the Social Democrats were also confronted with the erosion of their support on the left. The Greens, once regarded as an Eighties phenomenon, continued their advance, increasing their votes in two of the three states and capturing seats in Schleswig-Holstein for the first time ever.

Yesterday's elections, involving 12.3 million voters, were Mr Kohl's most severe test since winning the national elections in 1994. It came in the middle of an unforseen recession which has pushed unemployment to 4.3 million. But Germans yesterday signalled that they were prepared to stand by his cautious economic policies, rather than risk an upheaval under the SPD. The Chancellor now has a clear mandate to proceed as planned towards European Monetary Union, and to try to revive the economy through the tax cuts advocated by the Free Democrats.