BERLIN -- The extreme rightwing Republikaner Party scored impressive gains in the prosperous central state of Hesse yesterday, raising the profile of a group that had campaigned against the presence of refugees and asylum-seekers and dealing a setback to Germany's main parties.
The Republikaners, who are led by Franz Schonhuber, a gray-haired former SS officer in wartime Nazi Germany, came from virtually nowhere to win 8.3 percent of the votes cast throughout the state's local elections, far more than most pollsters had predicted. Four years ago, the Republikaners won less than 1 percent of the statewide vote.
In Frankfurt, the country's financial capital, with a large foreign population and a sizable Jewish community, the Republikaners received an even larger share -- 9.3 percent -- putting them in position to take seats on the City Council for the first time. They were projected to win several council seats.
The big losers were the liberal Social Democratic Party, traditionally the dominant party in the state. Its projected vote was placed at 36.4 percent, a drop of 8 percentage points from 1989. Several commentators called it a disaster for the SDP.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU) slipped 2.4 percentage points from their 1989 statewide totals, to 31.9 percent, but looked set to replace the SDP as the largest party on Frankfurt's City Council.
Asked how Frankfurt would look now in the eyes of the world, Andreas von Schoeler, the Social Democratic mayor, said, "Miserable."
"Organizing all the candlelight marches didn't prevent people from voting for the radical right," he said. "We must have made big mistakes."
Hundreds of thousands of people have marched in "candlelight chains" in German cities, including Frankfurt, in the past year to express opposition to neo-Nazi violence.
In Frankfurt yesterday, about 300 people gathered in front of City Hall, and some threw bottles. In Kassel, dozens of anti-rightist demonstrators entered City Hall, shouting, "Nazis out" to protest the Republikaners, who won a large share of the vote in the town.
Ignatz Bubis, the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a Frankfurt resident, said: "It is a bitter experience. I had hoped that the extremist violence would have turned people away (from the right), but that didn't happen."
The vote for the Republikaners and other small right-wing parties was seen by political experts as a sign of disillusionment with the floundering big parties, which are beset by indecision, bickering, internal divisions and even corruption.
About a third of the eligible voters in Hesse stayed home yesterday, in a state where turnouts of more than 90 percent have been routine.
The elections in Hesse, Germany's second-biggest industrial area, are the last that will be held in Germany until December.
About 4.3 million people were eligible to vote in the elections for offices in the state, Frankfurt, 23 counties and 426 communities.
There were a host of local issues, from traffic gridlock to a housing shortage in Frankfurt to, most notably, chemical emissions by a big chemical plant, which were exploited by the Greens.
But most observers said the voters were moved largely by national issues that the major parties have been unable to solve -- among them, Germany's economic crisis and resulting unemployment, the flood of foreign asylum-seekers and the prolonged difficulties and ballooning costs of unifying east and west Germany.
"People don't trust the politicians in Bonn anymore," said Lothar Klemm, an SDP leader in Frankfurt.
The Social Democrats, who are the opposition party nationally, govern Hesse in coalition with the Green Party, which increased its share of the vote in the state from 7 percent to 11 percent, about what they were expected to get.
The election was seen as a test of the strength of Mr. Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union, which is in opposition in Hesse.
The chancellor must stand for re-election in December 1994, at the end of a marathon election year when voters will choose a new federal Parliament and officials in most of the states of Germany.
The chancellor's CDU got a "blue eye, not a black eye," as one television commentator put it.
Political observers had suggested that if the CDU suffered severe losses in Hesse, members of Parliament who are worried about their own re-election chances next year might press Mr. Kohl to resign so they could regroup under a new leader.
The example cited was of British Conservatives who pushed Margaret Thatcher out of office after the going got rough and the electorate restive.
You could virtually hear CDU politicians heaving sighs of relief as they were interviewed on TV stations.
In Frankfurt, an urbane, cosmopolitan, multicultural city where BTC non-Germans make up nearly 20 percent of the population, the Republikaner Party won 9.3 percent of the vote. In some of the smaller towns of Hesse, 15 percent of voters supported the Republikaners. It was their best showing since last spring, when they won about 11 percent of the ballots cast in Baden-Wurttemberg.
The Republikaners were relatively quiet during the anti-foreigner violence and arson that surged through Germany in the fall and winter at the end of 1992. They assert a respectable middle-class conservative stance. But the state office for the protection of the constitution is investigating them as a radical right-wing party that could possibly be banned.
Mr. Schoeler, the Social Democratic mayor of Frankfurt, called the defeat for the SDP "devastating.
"The worst result in the history in Frankfurt," he said.