East Germans gave a strong boost to right wing extremists and the former communists in two state elections, punishing the country’s biggest mainstream parties for the region’s high unemployment and cuts in social programmes.
Yet the results gave the fringe parties no share of power in Saxony or Brandenburg, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats retained control.
“I would not speak of defeat,” Schroeder said today. “This is a good result. I think it’s grounds for optimism. We have to keep working hard, and we will.”
Secretary-general Laurenz Meyer of the conservative Christian Democrats, which lost heavily in both states, said the result was “a warning for Germany’s democratic parties”.
Franz Muentefering, head of the Social Democrats, called the 9.3% taken by the far-right National Democratic Party in Saxony – almost on par with his own party’s showing – a “disaster”, but insisted their political influence would remain small.
Paul Spiegel, leader of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, urged the mainstream parties to take the success of the National Democratic Party – known by their German initials NPD – “very seriously”.
"Certainly all those who voted Sunday for the NPD were not right radicals or anti Semites,” Spiegel said. “But it was also not only Nazis who helped bring the (Nazi party) to power in 1933.”
Average unemployment in east Germany has been stuck at about 20%, nearly twice the national average, and voter analysis showed that the extremist parties garnered much of their support from the jobless.
Despite the shift toward the political fringes, Sunday’s votes for new state parliaments left both regional governments intact.
In Brandenburg, the results gave Social Democrats and Christian Democrats enough support to continue a Social Democrat-led coalition for another five years. In Saxony, the Christian Democrats lost their majority but were poised to head an alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats.
But the anti-immigrant National Democrats were jubilant after a populist campaign in Saxony – one of the east’s most prosperous regions – that included broad attacks on Schroeder’s economic reforms.
“This is a huge victory for the German people,” said Holger Apfel, their leader in Saxony.
Germany’s highest court last year threw out a government attempt to ban the party on claims it and its skinhead supporters were responsible for inspiring hate crimes.
The Party of Democratic Socialism, heirs to the former East German communist rulers, reaffirmed its role as the main representative of those easterners who feel short-changed in the wrenching changes since the Berlin Wall fell 15 years ago.
The right wing radical German People’s Union, campaigning on slogans like “German jobs for Germans first!” garnered 6.2 percent in Brandenburg, topping the 5% needed to stay in the state parliament for another five years.
Schroeder has implored Germans for 18 months to accept that pruning their cherished, tax-funded welfare state is needed to stop the steady rise of labour costs, spark the stagnant economy and fight unemployment.
Voters have responded with weekly street protests and by punishing his party at the polls, a worrying trend for Schroeder two years ahead of national elections. His party’s 9.8% showing in Saxony was its worst ever in a state election.