Schroder government faces its first electoral test in Hesse poll

 

The Christian Democrat (CDU) leader in the southern state of Hesse, Mr Roland Koch, is delighted with the popular response to his party's petition against plans to reform Germany's citizenship law.

With just two days to go before a crucial election in the state on Sunday, over 300,000 citizens of Hesse have signed their names in protest against the proposal to allow some foreigners to hold two passports.

"We can be proud that we gave the public this chance to express their opinion," Mr Koch said.

Mr Koch would be crowing more loudly if he were not painfully aware that signatures do not necessarily translate into votes for his unpopular party. Most opinion polls predict that the CDU will remain in opposition in Hesse after Sunday's state election and that Mr Hans Eichel will remain at the head of a coalition between Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens.

Sunday's vote will be closely scrutinised as the first electoral test for Mr Gerhard Schroder's centre-left government since it came into office just over 100 days ago. But if the election is important for the SPD and Greens, it could have momentous consequences for the CDU.

The government's first 100 days have, according to the unanimous view of the German media, been a complete shambles, as Mr Schroder's ministers lurched from one mishap to the next. The Finance Minister, Mr Oskar Lafontaine, upset some of Bonn's European partners with his proposal to harmonise tax rates within the EU.

Plans to shut down Germany's 19 nuclear power stations damaged relations with Paris and London when the Environment Minister, Mr Jurgen Trittin, tried to cancel lucrative nuclear reprocessing contracts with Sellafield and La Hague.

Instead of providing the strong leadership that Germany's leader writers crave, Mr Schroder has intervened in each crisis at the last minute, usually offering a self-deprecating apology for his government's teething troubles.

There is only one problem with the media pundits' analysis - the stubborn refusal of the public to turn against its new government. Opinion polls show that the SPD and Greens are more popular now than when they trounced Dr Helmut Kohl's government last September.

One reason for the government's continuing popularity is the fact that it has kept some of its more unglamorous election promises, such as reducing prescription charges and restoring sickness benefits cut by the last government. But Mr Schroder's poll ratings owe much to the profound unpopularity of the CDU, which looks increasingly like a divided, demoralised bunch.

Mr Koch hopes the campaign against extending citizenship rights to foreigners will boost the CDU vote on Sunday but he faces a tough task in persuading the people of Hesse that it is time for a change.