A rocky start for Schrder

Opposition wins surprise victory as disillusioned Greens sit outSunday's state election in Germany.

When German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder's government reached the 100-day mark last week, the news media noted the occasion with criticism bordering on derision.

The country's first federal "red-green" coalition - consisting of Social Democrats and Greens - was taken to task for a series of false starts and embarrassing about-faces.

As if that weren't enough, Schrder's government has now suffered an unexpected setback at the polling booth.

In Sunday's state elections in Hesse, a similar red-green configuration was surprisingly voted out of office, putting the federal government under additional pressure.

The especially heavy losses sustained by Hessian Greens underscored a growing dissatisfaction among grass-roots supporters of Schrder's environmentalist partner.

And the results in one of Germany's richest states show that the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which won the most votes there, is still capable of political feats even without its longtime figurehead, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

"This is a big day for the Hessian CDU," the state's leading Christian Democrat, Roland Koch, said as the votes were counted.

"After this evening it's clear that in the future everyone in Germany must reckon with us," he said.

In concrete terms, the Social Democrats and the Greens have lost their majority in the Bundesrat, retaining 33 seats in the 69-seat upper house of parliament.

Its approval is necessary for passing bills such as the government's tax reform package and a controversial new citizenship law.

Signal to Greens

Emotionally the debacle in Hesse is especially stinging, since Germany's first red-green partnership made its debut there in 1985. This time the Greens mustered only 7.2 percent of the vote, four points less than in 1995 elections.

"For the Greens, the result is a signal. It has liberated them of the illusion that they're a double-digit party," says Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

Mr. Neugebauer says that voter turnout of 66.4 percent, low by German standards, indicates that CDU voters turned out in droves while Green supporters stayed home.

The causes lie less in provincial Hessian politics than in the much-criticized policies of Schrder's young federal government.

Upon passing its 100th day in power, the red-green coalition in Bonn took abuse from all sides.

Opposition CDU leader Wolfgang Schuble railed against the "indescribable chaos in tax and fiscal policies" as well as the government's plans to make dual citizenship an option for foreigners living in Germany. Currently, citizenship is overwhelmingly reserved for those of ethnic German parentage.

Environmentalists upset

Meanwhile environmentalists dangled an effigy of Schrder from the roof of the Social Democrats' party headquarters in Bonn to protest his sudden decision to postpone closing down Germany's nuclear industry.

Hamburg-published Stern magazine joined in the mockery with a cover showing a photo montage of Mr. Kohl's unmistakably bulky torso combined with the tiny head of the current chancellor.

The promised reforms of the new government - shutting down nuclear plants, setting up a so-called ecological tax to reduce non-wage labor costs, launching a bold employment program - had gotten bogged down in disputes within the coalition that often led to abrupt reversals.

Schrder confessed that the implementation of his government's ambitious program has often been rushed, but said that a full judgment of his record won't be warranted until the next federal elections.

Schrder's approval ratings of up to 75 percent, however, suggest that the German public is far more forgiving of the telegenic chancellor than the media or his political opponents.

Only in foreign policy has the coalition maintained the semblance of a steady course.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, of the Greens, receives high marks for his unexpectedly dapper and refined appearance on the diplomatic stage. Before taking office, he had been known for casual attire.

Foreign policy troubles

Still, differences within the center-left coalition have caused several embarrassing lapses with Germany's allies.

When Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, an old-school Social Democrat, called for greater coordination in tax policy within the European Union, the Sun tabloid of London attacked him as "the most dangerous man in Europe."

Environment Minister Jrgen Trittin's proposal to recall German nuclear waste from foreign reprocessing plants led to diplomatic tensions with France.

Even a common European policy toward Kosovo, which the Defense Ministry wants to support with combat tanks, is contested within the coalition.

The new government's muscular foreign policy, combined with Schrder's flip-flop on Germany's nuclear policy, caused many disgruntled Green supporters to stay away from the polls in Hesse.

Controversial drive

Furthermore, the CDU focused a controversial petition drive against proposed dual citizenship on the state, feeding on xenophobia within the population and mobilizing thousands of additional conservative voters.

"For the first time in postwar Germany, an election victory has been achieved by taking advantage of prejudices against foreigners," German papers quoted Ignatz Bubis, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, as saying after the vote. Perhaps it will not be the last time, either, as the Hesse vote was only the first of seven state elections to come this year.

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