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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
German right-wingers at the crossroads
Angela Merkel
Leader Angela Merkel faces possible overthrow plot
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.

Edmund Stoiber
Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber is gaining popularity
The CDU's total showing in Berlin was 23.7% - merely one percentage point above the ex-communists. Last time the city voted, in 1999, the CDU got 40%.

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.

Wilderness years

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.

CDU chancellors
Konrad Adenauer
Ludwig Erhard
Kurt Georg Kiesinger
Helmut Kohl
The party ruled Germany solidly for 20 years after the end of World War II until the SPD took power in 1969.

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.

Thatcher legacy

Since then the party has struggled to shake off its sleaze-ridden image.

Edmund Stoiber, the arch-conservative leader of an arch-conservative state, has a considerable power base and is gaining in national credibility and popularity

Mr Kohl's immediate successor, Wolfgang Schaeuble, was himself quickly forced out by the spiraling corruption scandal.

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.

Helmut Kohl
Helmut Kohl's shadow still falls across party
In Germany, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber is poised to do the same.

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.

Merkel's defence

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.

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

Suddeutsche Zeitung
But this may not be enough to save her.

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.

Kohl's legacy

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.

CDU candidate Frank Steffel
Gaffe-prone Frank Steffel was not Merkel's choice
There remains some sympathy for Ms Merkel. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper said it would be "a joke" to blame her.

"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.

So far there is no conservative person in sight who could win an election next autumn

Juergen Falter, Mainz University
"So far there is no conservative person in sight who could win an election next autumn," said Juergen Falter, head of domestic politics department at Mainz University.

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.

See also:

07 Jun 01 | Europe
Berlin city coalition collapses
04 May 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Berlin: Soaked in history
02 May 01 | Europe
Schroeder gets new home
09 Nov 99 | Europe
Berlin marks the fall of the wall
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