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Political Disillusionment Fuels German Rightist Movement

By Tyler Marshall
Los Angeles Times

BONN, Germany

The growing strength of the extreme political right in four successive German regional elections appears to be fueled more by a deepening disillusionment with the country's mainstream political elite than by xenophobic hatred.

In comments made Monday less than 24 hours after their latest electoral debacle, the leaders of Germany's two major parties, Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Social Democrat Bjoern Engholm, admitted major failures.

They were failures that eroded the support for their parties and helped the extreme right-wing Republikaners win a stunning 8.3 percent of the vote in Sunday's local government elections in the affluent western state of Hesse, including 9.5 percent in the state's largest city of Frankfurt.

The election provided the rightists with a new foothold in one of the country's largest, richest states, a result that led party leader Franz Schoenhuber to declare that the Republikaners had been brought into the mainstream.

At a news conference here, Kohl accepted much of the blame for his party's poor showing, citing internal bickering and indecision within his ruling coalition as major factors.

"Without question, we've ... presented a miserable picture," he told reporters at one point.

Few would find it hard to disagree. Despite months of messy infighting, his government has failed to formulate a revised package for meeting the spiraling costs of German unification. It remains deadlocked in its efforts to win parliamentary passage of key constitutional changes -- one that would tighten the country's liberal asylum law and another that would permit Germany to join its Western allies in United Nations-approved peacekeeping operations.

Monday, Kohl said he would seek compromise with the Social Democrats to help resolve these and other important issues.

Engholm was almost as candid as he surveyed the post-election wreckage dominated by his party's loss of more than 8 percent of its support in a state that, on election eve, was thought to have a solid Social Democratic base. He called the result "an extraordinary defeat."

He said his party had failed to clearly defend the interests of its rank and file.

"We're agreed we need a much clearer profile, much clearer than we've had previously," he said.

Both leaders seemed to agree with those analyzing the results Monday that an increasingly negative image presented by the mainstream political elites was responsible for voter shift to the political fringes and Hesse's lowest election turnout of the post-World War II era.

While Sunday's results, following similar strong rightist showings last year in state elections in Bremen and Baden-Wuerttemburg and local government elections in Berlin, are likely to spur the main parties toward greater action, the task of winning back disenchanted voters will not be easy, observers here say.

Even if they manage to control embarrassing scandals and refurbish their poor image, Kohl, Engholm, and other German democratic leaders are up against a series of complex problems: stemming immigration in an era when European governments are committed to free and open travel; reducing unemployment in a deepening recession; and finding new revenues to finance the reconstruction of the former communist east at a time when living standards in the west are dropping for the first time in a decade, a decline that seems likely to continue.