Bonn — North German conservatives have thrown the race for the next chancellor of West Germany into uncertainty by turning their backs on feisty Bavarian Franz-Josef Strauss and his controversial brand of southern German conservatism.
The rebuff had come in the key North Rhine-Westphalia election May 11. Mr. Strauss was counting on this election to strengthen his bid to upset Helmut Schmidt as the West German chief of state, but he was stunningly defeated.
Even though Mr. Strauss attempted to project a moderate, statesmanlike image during the campaign, he was unable to allay the fears, drummed up by Chancellor Schmidt's Social Democrats (SPD), about his temper and his hard anticommunist line.
In its campaign in West Germany's most popular state the SPD never overtly accused Mr. Strauss of being a warmonger. But its advertising pitch to that third of national voters who live in North Rhine-Westphalia featured women who had lost sons, husbands, or fathers in World War II and vowed never to let such a thing happen again. And Chancellor Schmidt kept hammering home to SPD rallies the parallels between today's international tensions and the slide into World War I in 1914.
In the aftermath of his defeat the question everyone is asking is: Will the controversial Mr. Strauss now withdraw, or possibly be dumped, as the opposition candidate for West German chancellor?
After reviewing the election May 12, the CDU presidium told reporters that Mr. Strauss would remain the candidate. But behind-the-scenes calls for his withdrawal are privately said to be growing within the CDU.
And the north German conservative voters have showed their mistrust of what he stands for by a pattern of switch-voting and abstentions that gave the SPD an absolute majority in the North Rhine-Westphalia Legislature for the first time in postwar history. So far Mr. Strauss has given no public sign that he would step down.
The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) plunged from its habitual top position in the state to a bitter second place, with only 43.2 percent to the SPD's 48.4 percent -- and CDU leaders are already hinting that they want to get rid of Mr. Strauss as their candidate for next October's general election.
The north German aversion to Mr. Strauss has been predicted in every public opinion poll since before he maneuvered the lackluster CDU chairman Helmut Kohl out and himself in as a conservative chancellor candidate last year.
But the CDU still felt itself "blackmailed" into nominating Mr. Strauss, as some politicians phrase it, by Mr. Strauss' threat to pull his Bavarian Christian Social Union out of its alliance with the nationwide (outside Bavaria) CDU if Mr. Strauss were not the candidate. As an independent candidate, Mr. Strauss's raid of voters in the right wing of the CDU would have ensured a CDU loss.
For his part Mr. Strauss warned against "rash" conclusions, said the time had come for conservatives to take off their kid gloves, and accused the SPD of "defaming" him in the campaign.