As the hard campaigning begins for next January's national election, the conservatives are elated by the last state election of 1986 - and the Social Democrats are reeling. Voters in the city-state of Hamburg gave a resounding defeat to the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) in parliamentary elections Sunday, plunging it from a triumphant 51.3 percent of the vote four years ago to a provisional count of 41.8 percent. This is the party's worst showing in the entire postwar era. The conservative Christian Democratic Union, with 41.9 percent (up 3.3 percent over the last election) is now the strongest party in this traditional SPD stronghold. The Social Democrats were similarly trounced in the state election in Bavaria last month.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the Green Alternative List (GAL), one of the more radical regional chapters of the countercultural Greens, also flourished in last weekend's election, giving its all-female slate a 10.4 percent total, a 3.6 percent increase. In Hamburg, as in the state of Hesse, the Greens have now replaced the Free Democratic Party (FDP) as the third and possibly scale-tipping party behind the two major parties. An uneasy ``red-Green'' (red meaning Social Democratic) coalition governs in Hesse, but a half-year experiment of GAL ``toleration'' of the SPD in Hamburg four years ago proved unworkable.
The FDP recovered from its disastrous showing of four years ago to win 4.8 percent, but this remained short of the 5 percent needed to enter the Hamburg legislature. This is the third election where the FDP has failed to win a single seat.
Local protest played a large role in the election results. Hamburg, the seat of shipbuilding and other manufacturing industries that have fallen on hard times, has 12.9 percent unemployment, 50 percent above the national level. And debt has reached 18 billion Deutsche marks ($9 billion).
In addition, discontent with party favoritism as well as with the financial scandals in the trade union's construction industry, Neue Heimat, has become widespread. Disgruntled workers in the district with the most Neue Heimat housing deserted the SPD by a stunning 10.5 percent and either refused to vote or switched to the conservatives. Overall, an extra 10 percent of voters sat out the election this year; only 74 percent of those eligible participated, down from 84 percent in 1982.
In party councils that met Monday, everyone drew the expected conclusions about prospects for the January election. Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl warned party troops not to be smug about an election that looks like a shoo-in and to work hard for every vote. A glum Willy Brandt, Social Democratic chairman, lowered his sights and said simply that his party will do everything it can to prevent a conservative majority in January - a change from his previously-stated goal of a clear SPD majority.
At this point, it is much easier to predict what may happen nation-wide than what will happen in Hamburg itself. By law, outgoing SPD Mayor Klaus von Dohnanyi will remain in office until a new majority is found.
To go left, the party would have to accept the Green demand for an immediate cutoff from the nuclear power that now supplies Hamburg with about 70 percent of its energy needs. Dr. Dohnanyi has made it clear he would not cooperate ``one millimeter'' with the Greens, however. He and the party's centrist wing fear that such a shift would scare away badly needed new investment and prevent solution of the city's economic plight.