Party turmoil follows Berlin poll upset

Two of Germany's leading political parties were in turmoil yesterday as they grappled with catastrophic results in Sunday's elections to the Berlin regional assembly.

The Social Democrats, who plunged to a post-war low of 23.6 per cent in Berlin, held an acrimonious meeting of the national executive as their leaders queued up to take the blame. The Free Democrats, catapulted out of the Berlin assembly with a vote of 2.5 per cent - less than the far-right Republicans - evaded collective reponsibility, singling out Gunter Rexrodt, the party's Berlin chairman, for punishment.

Mr Rexrodt, who is Economics Minister in the Bonn government, duly obliged, thus becoming the second senior FDP leader this year to sever his links with the party organisation. Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister, had resigned as chairman of the national party after a previous electoral fiasco.

Both men are hoping to stay in Helmut Kohl's coalition government until its term expires in 1998, but both are under fire from Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats. Mr Rexrodt is seen as a political lightweight who has recently been making contradictory statements on the issue closest to Mr Kohl's heart: the date for monetary union.

Mr Kinkel also has some justification for feeling unloved. He has had disagreements with CDU big guns over a range of important foreign policy issues, most notably the policing of peace in Bosnia. Even before the latest FDP debacle,the Foreign Minister was due to be shuffled out of the next cabinet.

Both men should survive as politicians, even if some unkind voices in the FDP were suggesting yesterday that Mr Rexrodt should take up another hobby. But the party which sustains the government majority in Bonn is heading for extinction after the next elections. Ofthe 16 regional assemblies, the FDP is represented in only four, and its national poll rating consistently falls below the 5 per cent required to enter the federal parliament. With membership crumbling, it is only a matter of time before the FDP, the eternal coalition builder, ceases to exist.

The Social Democrats, Sunday's other big losers, are also in a precarious position. Their presence in the forefront of politics is assured, but a future in government is not. After 13 years out of power at national level, the SPD seems doomed to perpetual opposition.

Yesterday, the leadership were quick to blame the recent unseemly power struggles within its own ranks. "Big mistakes were made here in Bonn over the summer," said the party's manager, Franz Munterfering. "We must make it clear that the personal wrangling in Bonn has to stop." Next month SPD members will get a chance to put an end to such wrangling by voting out the party's leadership. Leading article, page18