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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
German right-wingers at the crossroads
As Germany's Social Democrats and ex-communists celebrate their election successes in Berlin, the right-wing Christian Democrats are licking their wounds after their worst result in the city for more than half a century.
The CDU's performance was little short of an election catastrophe. Despite attempts to insist that its significance does not extend beyond Berlin, analysts were quick to predict that a change of national leadership has probably been hastened.
Such a dramatic collapse, virtually halving support, can only increase the pressure on national leader Angela Merkel. Renegade right-winger Edmund Stoiber had already been snapping at her ankles to be the party's next candidate for chancellor even before the voters of Berlin had their say.
The Berlin wipe-out can clearly be attributed in part to the local financial scandal which brought down the city's previous CDU-led coalition in June.
But nationally too, the CDU remains tainted by the funding and corruption scandal in which once-mighty Chancellor Helmut Kohl is himself implicated.
Analysts see the party - perhaps like the UK Conservative Party - as remaining in the wilderness for some time yet.
It was Chancellor Kohl who spearheaded its revival, leading the party and country through a golden age from 1982 to 1998.
But the apparently unassailable chancellor - who had steered the country through reunification and into the euro - was voted out in 1998 by an electorate ready for change.
As SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder ran his red-green "dream team" coalition with an assured nineties touch, murky secrets began emerging from the CDU's past.
Some were linked to political skulduggery in neighbouring France, where another right-wing administration - that of Francois Mitterrand - was also accused of operating a system of bribes, backhanders and mutual favours with apparent impunity.
That the once-revered Mr Kohl apparently stood right at the heart of the scandal was a shock to many ordinary voters.
Since then the party has struggled to shake off its sleaze-ridden image.
Like the British Conservatives who followed the Thatcher legacy with "grey man" John Major, the CDU last year chose the less-than-charismatic east German, Angela Merkel, to mark the post-legend, post-sleaze era.
In another parallel with the UK Conservatives, the German right-wingers may now replace the fence-sitting Ms Merkel with a leader firmly on the right.
In the UK, first William Hague and now Iain Duncan Smith took their party well to the right of centre, at a time when conventional wisdom said seizing the centre ground was the way back to power.
The arch-conservative leader of an arch-conservative state, he has a considerable power base and is gaining in national credibility and popularity. One survey suggested he was the country's third most popular politician, after Chancellor Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joscka Fischer.
Like his UK counterparts, he is a eurosceptic who wants to tighten immigration controls. His tough lines have gained in popularity since the 11 September attacks.
And after seeing their vote swept from under their noses by the ultra-right independent Ronald Schill - better known as Judge Merciless - in Hamburg's elections last month, the Christian Democrats now have another motivation to wander further from the centre ground.
In the wake of the Berlin collapse, Ms Merkel moved quickly to distance the results from the CDU's national standing.
And her backers point out that the gaffe-prone CDU candidate in Berlin, Frank Steffel, was not her choice.
Even before Berlin, Ms Merkel had been seen as offering only shaky, lacklustre leadership.
The financial newspaper Handelsblatt said her chances of leading the CDU into next year's national elections were now slimmer.
Some CDU members are also calling for an early decision on the party's candidate to challenge Mr Schroeder for the chancellorship - a timetable seen as favouring Mr Stoiber.
"Kohl and his donations scandal were to blame for the fact that people said 'typical CDU' when notorious stories about donations in Berlin came to the fore," the newspaper said.
The conservative quandary is only benefiting Chancellor Schroeder.
If Ms Merkel is successfully ousted, she will be guaranteed her job as party leader until next year and given the promise that she will be considered for Germany's next president if the party wins.
But whether Mr Stoiber can shift from the centre ground and still attract enough votes to bring the CDU back in from the electoral cold, only German voters can decide.
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