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Monday, 3 February, 2003, 18:14 GMT
Embattled Schroeder vows to fight on
Gerhard Schroeder
Schroeder's popularity has tumbled since re-election
Beleagured German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has vowed to press ahead faster with a programme of reforms, despite suffering an election mauling in two key regional polls.

We have to speed up the tempo of change

Gerhard Schroeder
German Chancellor
Voters in Mr Schroeder's home state, Lower Saxony, and in Hesse deserted the Social Democrats in their hundreds of thousands.

The elections were seen as a crucial test for Mr Schroeder, whose government is reeling from the effects of economic problems, unemployment and rising taxes.

Mr Schroeder told reporters on Monday that he accepted primary responsibility for the party's collapse - which he described as "one of the most bitter defeats I have known".

ELECTION RESULTS

Lower Saxony

Christian Democrats 48.3% -up 12.4
Social Democrats 33.4% - down 14.5
Free Democrats 8.1%
Greens 7.6%

Hesse

Christian Democrats 48.8% - up 5.4%
Social Democrats 29.1% - down 10.3
Greens 10.1% - up 2.9
Free Democrats 7.9% - up 2.8
Source: Official preliminary results
"We have to speed up the tempo of change," he said.

He said that the government would have to work harder to bring down unemployment, and to improve the health system.

Resignation, he said, was not being considered.

He also said his opposition to war in Iraq remained firm.

"We were against military action and we remain against it now," he said, insisting that his position was principled and not a political stunt.

A German Government spokesman also denied rumours of a cabinet reshuffle or other major political changes.

But analysts say Mr Schroeder will now be forced to co-operate with his conservative rivals nationally to get key legislation passed, and rival factions within the Social Democrats were expected to move further apart.

Mr Schroeder's government, narrowly re-elected four months ago, has been floundering in the polls ever since.

'Debacle'

Even his popular anti-war stance in Iraq could not save him from the voters' backlash, analysts say.

German media used dramatic terms to describe the collapse in the Social Democrats' support - characterising it as a debacle, or rout - with some even questioning whether the chancellor himself could survive.

"Is This Schroeder's End?" asked the headline in the tabloid Bild newspaper.

A government spokesman acknowledged that "incontestable federal political influences" had taken their toll.

Angela Merkel
This is an important signal to the European allies and the American Government

Angela Merkel
Christian Democrat leader
The bitterest pill for Mr Schroeder to swallow may be the result in Lower Saxony, where he was governor for eight years and still has a home.

Despite his personal contacts, the Social Democrats' support plummeted about 14 points to 33%.

In Hesse, the drop was 10 points, to 29.1%.

In both states, the main beneficiaries were the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) who extended their absolute majority in Hesse, and will probably form a coalition with the Free Democrats in Lower Saxony.

The results give the CDU - the parliamentary opposition - an increased majority in the federal upper house, the Bundesrat. It will force Mr Schroeder to co-operate with the CDU to get laws passed.

About 10 million people were eligible to vote in the two states, with turnout around 65%.

Iraq implications

The CDU's leader, Angela Merkel, expressed satisfaction with the results, stressing that Germans did not support Mr Schroeder's policy of antagonising the US on the Iraq issue.

"This is an important signal to the European allies and the American Government," Ms Merkel told the Associated Press news agency.

On domestic issues, the regional losses may, paradoxically, translate into a boost for some of Mr Schroeder's reforms.

The conservative Christian Democrats are more likely than Mr Schroeder's own Social Democrats to support his tough business-friendly reform proposals.

Chancellor Schroeder's government has tumbled further and faster in the opinion polls than any other post-World War II government.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Stephen Sackur reports from Frankfurt
"What Germany needs is strong, dynamic political leadership"
Michael Naumann, Chief Editor, Die Zeit
"Schroeder will not be overthrown; he is not a quitter"
Friedbeit Pflueger, CDU Foreign Affairs Spokesman
"Gerhard Schroeder is responsible for a double malaise of German politics"
See also:

03 Feb 03 | Europe
03 Feb 03 | Media reports
03 Feb 03 | Business
08 Jan 03 | Europe
08 Jan 03 | Business
06 Jan 03 | Business
12 Nov 02 | Entertainment
07 Dec 02 | Europe
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