Ominous tremors from the state elections in Saxony-Anhalt have rattled Germany's political elites. Not only did Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union take heavy losses in the eastern German state, but the xenophobic German People's Union (DVU) made the strongest showing of a right-wing extremist party in Germany since the end of World War II.
Sunday's vote in Saxony-Anhalt was the last state election before federal elections in September, and analysts view the results as an important barometer of the country's political climate, especially in the formerly communist eastern Germany.
"The public sentiment that became clear [in Saxony-Anhalt] is certainly widespread in other eastern German states," says Richard Hilmer, manager of the Berlin-based polling institute Infratest. Mr. Hilmer points to the disastrous economic situation there and the "meager hope for improvement" as the reasons one-third of Saxony-Anhalt's voters rejected established political parties.
While the Social Democrats emerged as the most powerful party in Saxony-Anhalt with 35.9 percent of the vote, they failed to win an absolute majority. The party will probably have to cooperate with its archrival, the Christian Democrats, who mustered only 22 percent, down 12 points from the last election.
Germany's traditional smaller parties, the environmentalist Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, both failed to win the 5 percent of the vote necessary to enter the state legislature.
Shock to Bonn
The former Communist Party of Democratic Socialism held stable with 19.6 percent, while the right wing DVU won an unprecedented 12.9 percent. For the first time, voters elected candidates from an extreme-right party to an eastern German legislature.
The shock waves of the election results reached Bonn immediately. Labor Minister Norbert Blem called the DVU success "a scandal." While leading Christian Democrats have conceded defeat, they blame the Social Democrats in Saxony-Anhalt for polarizing the political scene by cooperating with former communists in the past. The Social Democrats counter that Christian Democrats, by adopting hard-line rhetoric against foreigners, made the success of an extreme-right party possible.
Political observers agree that the majority of those who cast their ballots for the DVU are people who do not normally vote and wanted to make a protest statement against the established parties. Saxony-Anhalt's unemployment rate of 22.6 percent is the highest in Germany, and Magdeburg, the capital, has become notorious for its violent skinhead youths. Still, nobody predicted the DVU's double-digit showing.
Founded in 1987 by Munich publisher Gerhard Frey, the DVU has moved on the fringes of the German political spectrum, with some 15,000 members nationwide. In the past, it succeeded in sending candidates to the legislatures of the states of Bremen and Schleswig-Holstein, though never in significant numbers.
Only weeks before the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, Mr. Frey launched a $1.6 million media blitz in the state, outspending the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats combined.
'Foreign criminals get out'
The DVU sent out letters to the state's 1 million households and plastered city centers with posters reading: "This time vote protest" and "Jobs first for Germans." Another DVU slogan, "Criminal foreigners get out!" differs from a popular neo-Nazi slogan only through addition of the word "criminal." Significantly, less than 2 percent of the state's population is foreign.
"One thing is very important," says pollster Hilmer. "The people in Saxony-Anhalt didn't know what they were voting for. Nobody knows Mr. Frey.... They were making a protest vote, just like it says on the posters."
Nevertheless, Richard Stss, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, argues that the possibility exists that other extreme-right parties could gain momentum from the DVU success. "We have this [right-wing] potential in the eastern states, and one must fear that it could spread to other states if politicians don't steer against it," he says.
More than anything, perhaps, the election results in Saxony-Anhalt show the depth of eastern German resentment toward Western political and economic models. Even for the Social Democrats, who are leading in polls for the federal elections this fall, coming out on top in Saxony-Anhalt was anything but a victory.