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Election setback for West German conservative leaves austerity intact

West Germany's ruling conservatives were rapped on the knuckles by voters in regional elections Sept. 25 after campaigns dominated by pocketbook issues. Policy effects will be minor. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's center-right coalition , which won a solid national victory in March, is set on trimming social welfare costs. The reelection of Social Democratic premiers with a minority government in Hessen and an absolute majority in Bremen won't alter that.

The strongest impact, in fact - and even this will only be slight, observers believe - will be to brake somewhat the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) leftward slide. Both Hessen Premier Holger Borner and Bremen Mayor Hans Koschnick belong to the moderate wing of the SPD. So do the only other two SPD premiers in West Germany's 11 states.

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Local and regional Social Democratic organizations are increasingly impatient with moderation, however, and are expected to vote at a November convention against stationing new NATO missiles in West Germany.

The two surprises in Sunday's vote were the demise of the small Liberal party in Bremen and the increase in the SPD's absolute majority there, despite soaring unemployment in Bremen's shipbuilding industry.

The Bremen Liberals campaigned for a coalition with the SPD, whom the Liberals were allied with at a federal level until a year ago. But they saw a mass flight of votes from both right and left wings, and failed to clear the 5 percent minimum to return to city council.

The resulting shift helped give the Bremen Social Democrats an impressive 51. 4 percent of the votes, up 2 percent from the last election four years ago. Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democratic Union won 33.3 percent (up 1.4 percent), the environmental and antinuclear Greens 5.4 percent.

In Hessen, Christian Democrats were snubbed by voters, falling 6.2 percent since the last state election a year ago to 39.4 percent. They thus had to yield their place as the largest single party to the SPD (46.2 percent) for the first time since 1970.

Unlike in Bremen, Hessen Liberals followed their national party's switch of a year ago to ally with the conservatives - and won a healthy 7.6 percent, up 4.5 percent from last year. But the combined vote was not enough to produce a center-right majority.

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