Ominous signs for Schmidt's ruling party

Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic Party has been dealt yet another blow.

The opposition conservatives have come one step closer to taking over the federal government after more than a decade in the wilderness.

And West German politics is entering a period of turbulence in the 1980s with the rise of the Green environmentalist and antinuclear party.

These are the conclusions that West German observers are drawing after the March 21 election in Lower Saxony that gave the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) an absolute majority in the state legislature for the first time and gave the Social Democratic Party (SPD) its worst showing in the state in 27 years.

The election did not bring any change of minister-president in the northern coastal state of Lower Saxony. Ernst Albrecht remains in office, with his hopes of becoming the next CDU chancellor candidate strengthened by a 2 percent increase in votes to 50.7 percent for 87 seats in the 171-member legislature.

The SPD's troubles come not alone from its 36.5 percent of the vote and 63 seats - down a dramatic 6 percent from the 1978 election. Lower Saxony used to be a Social Democratic stronghold.

The woes arise also from the stimulus the Lower Saxony election gives to the liberals -- who are in a decade-old federal coalition with the Social Democrats -- to shift back to a coalition with the conservatives at federal level.

The liberals were in coalition with the conservatives in the 1960s prior to joining with the SPD, and it is only the Liberals' strength in the Bundestag that gives Chancellor Schmidt his 41-seat majority.

In recent weeks Liberal leader (and foreign minister) Hans-Dietrich Genscher has all but openly flirted with a return to a Conservative alliance in the future. This flirtation picked up intensity in the last few days before the Lower Saxony election - and CDU spokesmen at least attribute the liberals' improved showing at the polls to the party's new conservative hue. The liberals, after four years of being shut out of the legislature, won 10 seats with 5.9 percent of the vote.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the SPD's problems come from erosion of the party's support on the left, with disgruntled voters moving over to the Greens.

On a federal level the SPD is also challenged on the left by the formation of a new party by two renegade ex-SPD members of parliament. The just-announced party will be called the Democratic Socialists. Its success will depend on its ability to link with the Greens.

As for the Greens, this rather new party has by now proved that it is here to stay, winning seats in three state legislatures. The Greens, for the first time in Lower Saxony, got more than the minimum 5 percent of the votes. With 6.5 percent of the ballots, they now have 11 seats.

The Lower Saxony election -- the first state poll since Schmidt was decisively reelected in the fall of 1980 -- is especially ominous to the SPD because of its portents for the future. It -- and the conservative-dominated local election in Schleswig-Holstein two weeks earlier - have shown a trend that could be disastrous for the SPD in state elections this year.

The next one comes in June in Hamburg, Schmidt's home city and a traditional SPD stronghold. The following one -- the most crucial of all -- is in Hesse in September. There the last remaining state government that still repeats the federal SPD-Liberal coalition is fighting for its political life. If it loses, the Conservatives will control a blocking two-thirds vote in the upper house.

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