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Schroder in new wave of poll defeats

ELECTIONS IN the German regions delivered another series of crushing defeats to Chancellor Gerhard Schroder yesterday, with his Social Democrats ejected from the regional government of Thuringia, and losing control of town halls on the Rhine and Ruhr for the first time since the Second World War.

The voters were venting their fury not with the local authorities, but with Berlin. "This is a clear message; a slap in the face," said Franz Muntefering, the Social Democrats' new general secretary. "We will not change our policies as a result of this election, but we will have to explain them better."

Most urgently in need of explaining is the Chancellor's austerity programme, which seeks to ease industry's tax burden by trimming the state's welfare expenditure. This is not what Mr Schroder had promised on the election stump a year ago, and many Social Democrats feel let down.

There is not much time left to convince the doubters and win back the disenchanted, with Mr Schroder's own personal popularity in free fall. Elections to the regional assembly of North Rhine-Westphalia are due in May. A consensus is already emerging in the divided party that, if Mr Schroder's allies lose there, the Chancellor will have to go.

On a night of humiliations, the result in the eastern Land of Thuringia probably ranks the worst. Not only did the Social Democrats lose a third of their votes compared with the last regional elections five years ago, but they suffered the indignity of finishing after the Party of Democratic Socialism; another first in the history of reunited Germany. The Christian Democrats, who had until now governed with the Social Democrats in a so- called "grand coalition", improved their score by nine points and won absolute control.

By capturing Thuringia outright, the opposition gains four more seats in the second chamber of the federal Parliament, the Bundesrat, making it yet more difficult for Chancellor Schroder to push through government Bills.