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  •   German Elections: Profile of the Two Main Parties

    | Social Democratic Party | Christian Democratic Union / Christian Social Union |

    Social Democratic Party
    One of the oldest organized political parties in the world and now the largest voting bloc in Germany's Bundestag (the lower house of parliament). Historically, the SDP advocated Marxist principles, although it abandoned that platform in 1959 in favor of stressing social welfare programs. Supporters gave the party 36.4 percent of the vote and 252 seats in the Bundestag in the 1994 election. In advance of the 1998 election, the SDP positioned itself as the "centrist" party, emphasizing the need to reach out to new constituencies and expand the party's reach to young entrepreneurs. Like Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign against George Bush, the Social Democrats were hoping to take advantage of voter dissatisfaction with the stalled economy under the Christian Democrats. The strategy worked: The Social Democrats won 41 percent of the vote, topping all other parties.
    Chancellor-in-Waiting: Gerhard Schroeder
    Telegenic and charming, Schroeder is often compared to President Bill Clinton: an effective orator with a reputation for swimming with the prevailing political currents. In 1980, as a self-described Marxist, Schroeder won a seat in the Bundestag and later campaigned actively against NATO plans to deploy missiles in then-West Germany. Years later, Schroeder reinvented himself as a moderate, winning the premiership of Lower Saxony in 1990. Currently, he maintains close ties with big business and often speaks of the need for Germany to expand its industrial economy into sectors like biotechnology and computer software. Schroeder shrewdly focused the debate in September 1998 national elections on the economy and Germany's high unemployment, in the end ousting longtime Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Schroeder will likely attempt to form a coalition government with other, smaller parties.

    Christian Democratic Union / Christian Social Union
    One of the most powerful coalitions to emerge in Germany's postwar period. Generally conservative on economic and social policy, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, are often identified with the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, although their programs tend to be more pragmatic than ideological. The two parties, while maintaining separate organizational structures, form a common caucus in the Bundestag and run coordinated campaigns. In 1994 elections, the CDU and the CSU together earned 41.5 percent of the vote and won 294 seats making it the country's largest party/coalition. However, popular support for the party eroded by the late 1990s, particularly in eastern Germany where unemployment remains high and CDU promises of prosperity have gone mostly unfulfilled. In September 1998 national elections, the Christian Democrats were pushed out of power, managing only 35 percent of the vote.

    Ousted Chancellor: Helmut Kohl
    Chancellor of Germany since 1982, Kohl and his party ran for an unprecedented fifth term in office in Sept. 1998 only to lose to the Social Democratic Party and its candidate, Gerhard Schroeder. Among his varied policy priorities, Kohl was most well-known for his ardent backing of European unity, pushing hard for Germany's inclusion in the euro – the European Union's common currency. After the collapse of East Germany in 1989, Kohl rallied support for rapid unification and won the chancellorship again in the first, post-war, all-German elections in 1990. By 1998, however, popular support for Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union suffered in the East and elsewhere. High unemployment and lingering difficulties in modernizing the East German economy weighed heavy on German voters during the Sept. 1998 elections. With the party's poor showing, Kohl became the first chancellor to be voted out of office in modern German history.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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