Germany's Social Democrats suffered a catastrophic rebuff yesterday in elections to the Berlin regional assembly, recording their lowest share of the vote since the war.
According to early projections, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats came first, with 37.2 per cent of the vote. The SPD came a poor second, scoring 23.6 per cent, down from 30.4 per cent obtained in the first elections in the reunited city, in 1990. The SPD can to some extent blame the Party of Democratic Socialism, successors to the Communists, which emerged as by far the biggest party in the eastern half of the city, with an impressive 35 per cent. Its figure for the whole of Berlin was just over 14 per cent, the same as the resurgent Greens.
The result is certain to intensify the struggle to oust Rudolf Scharping, the SPD's embattled leader. Although the Social Democrats seem set to remain the CDU's junior partners in the coalition governing Berlin, failure to score well in their former power base seriously undermines the party's credibility nationwide.
It was in West Berlin that Willy Brandt reigned supreme in the 1960s as governing mayor, gaining more than 60 per cent of the vote, before making his mark in Bonn. Although the fall of the Wall changed the arithmetic, Berlin is still a city where the non-Communist left should do well. Unemployment, at 250,000 out of a population of 3.5 million, remains high, despite a building boom.
The administration elected yesterday will be in charge of moving the national government back to the former Prussian capital. The SPD would love to have been the midwife at the birth of the Berlin Republic in 2000, and now that dream is shattered. Nor will it have a role on the national stage if the current defeats continue. After failing narrowly to oust Mr Kohl in last year's general elections, the Social Democrats have plunged into despair.
Riven by ideological infighting similar to that which blighted the British Labour Party in the 1980s, the SPD has also been cursed by poor leadership. In Mr Scharping, they have found a highly eligible scapegoat, but the alternatives for the leadership do not seem particularly alluring. The front-runner is Oskar Lafontaine, who so fatally misjudged the national mood on reunification in 1990.
The dearth of personalities was evident in the Berlin campaign. The SPD fielded the little-known Ingrid Stahmer as its candidate for mayor; her uninspired slogan was: "Women's Choice".
Ms Stahmer was up against the CDU incumbent, Eberhard Diepgen, who almost managed to look and sound like his party leader in Bonn. Both Mr Kohl and Mr Scharping turned up in Berlin - a double blow for Ms Stahmer, who complained about having to campaign "uphill and into a headwind".
But not all that happened in Berlin went in Mr Kohl's favour. The Free Democrats, the CDU's coalition partners in the national government, crashed out of yet another regional assembly by failing to clear the 5-per-cent threshold. This was their 12th defeat in a row, raising doubts about their ability to get into the national parliament in the 1998 general elections.