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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Far right wins seats in German state assembly

SCHWERIN, Germany (Reuters) - A far-right party won seats in a regional parliament in eastern Germany on Sunday, profiting from a weak economy there and mounting anger toward Chancellor Angela Merkel's government in Berlin.

Preliminary results showed the National Democratic Party (NPD), which the government has likened to the early Nazi Party and tried to ban, won 6.4 percent of the vote in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a northeastern state on the Baltic Sea which borders Poland.

If confirmed that result would allow the NPD, which advocates closing German borders to immigrants, to enter the regional assembly, making Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the third state in the ex-communist east with far-right representation.

The result alarmed mainstream politicians and Jewish groups, who called on the federal government to renew its bid to ban the party after a previous attempt in 2003 failed.

"The government must look for ways to impose a ban," Dieter Graumann, vice president of the Central Council for Jews in Germany, told Reuters.

Results showed the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) winning 28.8 percent of the vote in the state, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) 29.7 percent and the reformed communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) 18.1 percent.

That should allow the SPD and PDS, who have ruled in coalition in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern for the past eight years, to remain in government -- a blow to Merkel, whose CDU was given a decent chance of seizing power.

Voter disillusionment with Merkel's national government in Berlin, which has been plagued by infighting and struggled to deliver on promised reforms, has contributed to the rise of smaller parties like the NPD. Merkel heads a grand coalition with the SPD after inconclusive elections a year ago.


In a separate election in the German capital and city-state of Berlin, the SPD under popular Mayor Klaus Wowereit remained the largest party at 31.4 percent, according to preliminary results.

The result should allow Wowereit -- who won admirers in 2001 by outing himself with the words "I'm gay and that's a good thing" -- to continue to rule alongside the PDS or opt for a new coalition with the environmentalist Greens.

His victory came despite what critics say was a failure during his first term to tackle Berlin's crippling 60 billion euro debt-load and jobless rate of over 17 percent.

In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the state where Merkel has her local parliamentary constituency and where she hosted President Bush for a barbecue in July, the economy is even weaker.

Nearly one in five is without work and the jobless rate hovers above 30 percent in some areas. Like other states in the former communist east, it has seen many leave in search of jobs.

Those conditions have provided fertile ground for the NPD, whose leaders have played down Nazi responsibility for World War Two and expressed doubts about the extent of the Holocaust.

After Sunday, the NPD will hold seats in the state assemblies of Mecklenburg and Saxony. Another far-right party, the German People's Union (DVU), holds seats in Brandenburg.

Neither party has so far made an impact at national level. The NPD won just 1.6 percent of the vote in last year's federal vote, far below what parties like France's National Front have registered.
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