The surprising result of the Sept. 26 Hesse election is accelerating left-right polarization in West Germany. It is also complicating - or even calling into question - the imminent historic shift from a Social Democratic to a conservative chancellor.
Increasingly it is looking as if there may not be a smooth transition from a center-left to a center-right government in Bonn, but instead a period of political turmoil.
This is an unsettling development for German voters, who place a high value on order and stability. And it means that the Federal Republic may be a little more unpredictable for its Western allies.
(The West German stock market plunged in the biggest sell-off in 20 years and the mark slid to a 13-month low against the dollar today following the Hesse election results.)
The weakening of the center follows from the elimination in Hesse of the Liberals, West Germany's small traditional swing party, and from the establishment of the third minority government at state level in the past 18 months.
The left-right polarization follows especially from the new balance-tipping strength of the ecological protest Green Party on the left - and from the surging influence of veteran politician and Bavarian Minister-President Franz Josef Strauss on the right.
The failure of the Liberals to win the 5 percent minimum of votes needed to get legislative seats in Hesse was not unexpected, given their dismal showing in pre-election opinion polls. This drop in Liberal support - along with a national conservative shift in other recent state elections - precipitated the Liberals' Sept. 17 desertion of their coalition with the Social Democrats and return to their old conservative alliance of the 1960s.
This split after 13 years of left-liberal partnership angered Liberal voters with Social Democratic leanings more than it attracted potential Liberal voters with conservative leanings in Hesse, however. The Liberals gained only 3.1 percent of the vote and have severely weakened their bargaining position in their new-old alliance with the conservatives.
Much more surprising in the Hesse election was the resurgence of the Social Democrats following Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's open attack on the Liberals at the time they left the coalition in mid-September. In the last week of the Hesse campaign the Social Democrats campaigned more against their erstwhile allies - with posters protesting the ''betrayal in Bonn'' - than they did against their real adversaries, the conservatives.
This strategy worked. The Social Democrats won 42.8 percent of the votes, or almost 10 percent more than opinion polls had projected. The conservatives, who had confidently expected to end 35 years of Social Democratic rule in the state and gain an absolute majority, had to settle for 45.6 percent of the votes, or even less than their showing four years ago. Social Democratic Minister-President Holger Boerner will therefore stay on to head a minority state government. Long-time Hesse conservative leader Alfred Dregger has resigned his party position.
The balance between the Social Democrats' 49 seats and the (conservative) Christian Democrats' 52 seats is held by the Greens, who have now entered the legislature for the first time with 8 percent of the vote and nine seats. The Greens are in bitter conflict with the Social Democrats in Hesse, especially in their opposition to the extension of the Frankfurt Airport runway and the clearing of suburban woods for it; they have therefore said there is no possibility of their cooperating with the Social Democrats in legislative voting.
The upshot in Hesse in personal terms is a strengthening of the center. Boerner is from the middle and not from the left wing of the Social Democratic Party, while Dregger, who has bowed out of state politics, is from the right wing rather than the middle of the conservative party.
Institutionally the Hesse election invites polarization, however. This follows from the elimination of the Liberals, the novel holding of the legislative balance by a group that still views itself as a protest movement rather than a party - and the shift to a minority government. Hesse is the third out of 11 West German regions - along with Hamburg and West Berlin - in which the new Green victories have led to minority governments.
The Hesse election's nudge to polarization is even more pronounced at the federal level. Here it has perhaps fatally weakened the Liberals' influence in the right-center coalition negotiations preceding the planned Oct. 1 nonconfidence vote against Mr. Schmidt. It has strengthened the resistance of left-wing Liberals to the coalition switch - and could mean that Hans-Dietrich Genscher, ex-foreign minister and Liberal Party leader, may not be able to deliver enough Liberal votes Oct. 1 to topple Schmidt and install Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl as chancellor.
Even more significantly, it has created a vacuum at the moderate end of the center-right coalition. And this has greatly strengthened the hand of Strauss on the right.