Boosted by rising anti-war sentiment, a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens came back from its collapse in last month’s national elections to score a narrow victory in a state election over a coalition headed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democrats.
The balloting in the state of Hesse on Sunday had been expected to serve as the first test of Kohl’s strength since the election of his new government in December. Instead, it became a gauge of anti-war sentiment in a nation whose peace movement has re-emerged with a vengeance.
As vote-counting continued, the two parties held a slim lead that would give them an edge of one or two seats in the 100-seat state assembly. Hesse, traditionally a socialist stronghold, has been ruled by a coalition of Kohl’s Christian Democrats and members of the small Free Democrat Party since 1987.
“There’s no doubt that the gulf war was the dominant issue,” Wolfgang Gerhardt, leader of Hesse’s Free Democrats, said of the returns. “The international situation pushed the Greens into the foreground.”
Embarrassed at the thought of reaping political capital from a war, the Greens’ and Social Democrat candidates campaigned for a regional program of expanded public housing and an end to nuclear power in the state.
Still, there seemed little question that concern about the Mideast war influenced the voters.
Hesse is home to several large U.S. military installations, including Rhein-Main Air Force Base, a major transit point between the United States and the Persian Gulf region.
American military hospitals also are in the state capital, Wiesbaden, and in Frankfurt.
Protesters demanding an immediate end to the gulf war have staged vigils outside the gates of Rhein-Main and other bases in the area.
Police in Wiesbaden on Sunday cleared some 300 peace demonstrators from the steps of the state parliament building just as the polls closed. Election-related opinion surveys conducted for German television focused almost exclusively on attitudes toward the war.
Those surveys found only a slim majority in favor of the use of force, but also indicated that an overwhelming majority blamed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for causing the hostilities.
Despite the strong anti-American flavor of several anti-war demonstrations, just 3% of those questioned in a poll, conducted in Hesse by the INFAS organization, blamed President Bush.
The surveys also found a major difference in perception between generations of Germans.
While the same INFAS poll found 55% in support of the U.S.-led attack, 30% against it and 15% undecided, sentiment among young voters was much more evenly spread--with 48% of 18- to 21-year-olds in favor, 47% against and 5% undecided.
Students and other young people have dominated protests against the war here.