THE results of a German state election Sunday are being interpreted as a blow to the country's chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and his Christian Democratic Party. After 44 years in CDU hands, Chancellor Kohl's home state, the Rheinland-Pfalz, fell to the left-of-center opposition party, the Social Democrats (SPD). Despite no fewer than 14 personal appearances by Kohl in the region, his party was unable to prevent the Social Democrats from winning a clear victory of 6 percentage points over the CDU. Yesterday several leading CDU politicians called for a review of the party's strategy and profile.
With the Rheinland-Pfalz win, the SPD also gained the majority in the Bundesrat, the upper chamber of Parliament which represents Germany's state governments.
The Bundesrat has veto power over all legislation that applies to the states and plays a crucial role in approving finance- and tax-related legislation - no small matter at a time when the chief domestic priority is financing the east German economic recovery.
Finance, in fact, was a key theme in the election. Rudolf Scharping, the SPD candidate for premier of the Rheinland-Pfalz repeatedly pointed to Kohl's "tax lies" as proof of CDU incompetence.
During Kohl's campaign for national elections last fall, Kohl said tax increases would not be needed to pay for unification. But this winter he announced a stiff increase in taxes to take effect in July. "One doesn't vote for people who lie like that," read SPD posters throughout the state.
Recent dithering in Bonn over an increase in federally regulated telephone rates - among the highest in the world - to help pay for reunification also hurt the CDU in the state election, analysts say.
Capturing 44.8 percent of the vote, the SPD and Mr. Scharping will be forced to build a coalition government to form a majority in the state government. Scharping is holding talks with both the Free Democrats (Kohl's coalition partners at the federal level) and the Greens, who fared well in Sunday's vote.
Since their poor showing in national elections last year, the Greens appear to be moving in the direction of pragmatism and away from more extreme positions. A clearer picture of the Greens' strategy will emerge this weekend during their party congress.