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World in brief

German voters rebuke ruling party

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2003

BERLIN -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party suffered humiliating defeats in regional elections in the German leader's home state of Lower Saxony and in the state of Hesse on Sunday. Voters punished the national government for the country's economic stagnation and brushed aside Schroeder's attempts to capitalize on his opposition to a possible war in Iraq.

The conservative opposition secured 48 percent of the vote in Lower Saxony, according to exit polls, and plan to take control of the statehouse by governing in a coalition with the probusiness Free Democrats.

In Hesse, home to the nation's financial capital, Frankfurt, the governing Christian Democrats surged 11 points to 50 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats recorded 28 percent, down from 39 percent in the last poll in Hesse, according to exit polls.

Sunday's results underscored the widespread unpopularity of the national coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens. Germany's economic growth rate is the lowest in the European Union, and unemployment has topped 10 percent.

Havel finishes term as Czech leader

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- From a snow-swept balcony in Prague Castle, President Vaclav Havel bade farewell to his countrymen on Sunday, bringing to an end one of the unlikeliest political fairy tales of the modern era.

Havel first spoke as president from that same balcony just over 13 years ago, carried to the office by popular acclamation just months after he was released from jail for opposing the Communist regime, and only weeks after he led Civic Forum, an impromptu band of dissidents, students and actors, to overthrow Czechoslovakia's communist rulers.

But with the Czechs still squabbling over a possible war with Iraq, Havel left his countrymen with a warning that their fledgling democracy still faces several crucial tests.

"The time which is now at hand will truly show the extent to which we are a fully fledged part of the democratic world," Havel said.

Havel leaves behind no obvious successor. The Czech president is chosen by Parliament, and no politician or personality has seemed up to the task. Last month, Parliament twice failed to choose a new president.

Chavez declares victory over strikers

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez declared victory Sunday after his opponents agreed to ease a two-month national strike, but thousands of Venezuelans still lined up for a petition drive seeking his ouster.

Strike organizers, who began the protest Dec. 2 to pressure Chavez into accepting a referendum on his rule, said Friday they would ease the work stoppage, already waning, this week to protect businesses from bankruptcy.

However, the strike will continue in the vital oil industry, where production was cut from 3-million barrels a day to 150,000 at the height of the strike. Chavez said Sunday the government boosted production to 1.8-million barrels a day, but striking workers put the number at 1-million.

"Today is a victorious day," the president said in his weekly television and radio program. "We have beaten once and for all a new destabilizing attempt, a new malevolent and criminal attempt to sink Venezuela."

But opposition leaders -- who accuse Chavez of ruining the economy with leftist policies and trying to accumulate too much power -- were far from conceding defeat.

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