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Merkel bruised in local polls

BERLIN, Aug 31 – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives were on Monday licking their wounds after strong setbacks in state polls raised doubts about their favoured coalition’s chances of winning a looming general election.

Merkel still seems assured of a second term after the September 27 election with a double-digit lead in the polls over the rival Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in her unwieldy "grand coalition".

But her hopes to ditch the SPD after the general election in favour of the pro-business Free Democrats appeared to narrow after the disappointing results of three state elections held on Sunday.

The CDU posted losses in all three polls compared to their score five years ago, and lost power in two of them, according to preliminary results.

Although the SPD failed to make major gains, a jubilant Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Merkel’s SPD challenger, saw her poor showing as a sign the centre-left still had a shot of snatching the chancellery from her.

"Those who said that the (general) election was already decided have made a big mistake," he told cheering supporters late Sunday.

Merkel was to address her party at 1100 GMT.

Political scientist Juergen Falter of the University of Mainz in western Germany said the regional elections, in which 6.2 million voters were called to the polls, pointed to doubts about Merkel’s preferred centre-right alliance.

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"This option was always in danger and still is in danger," he told the daily Thueringer Allgemeine.

"One-third of voters are still undecided for the general election and among them are many potential SPD supporters who, when it comes down to it, will grit their teeth and vote for the SPD. That is why it will be very close on September 27."

As pollsters expected, the chancellor’s CDU held onto power in the eastern state of Saxony but will need to link up with the Free Democrats to form a ruling majority.

And it appeared to lose the state houses of neighbouring Thuringia and Saarland on the French border outright.

However smaller parties profited from the conservatives’ losses far more than the SPD, which posted slight gains in Thuringia and Saxony and a steep drop in support in Saarland.

But in Thuringia and Saarland, the SPD will likely be able to form ruling coalitions with the Greens and the far-left Die Linke, a relatively new party made up of disgruntled Social Democrats and former East German communists.

Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, had warned voters against allowing the SPD to tie up with Die Linke, calling it an extremist force unfit to govern.

The party wants Germany to pull out of NATO and massively boost social spending.

Oskar Niedermayer of Berlin’s Free University said the state polls had taken some of the wind out of the sails of Merkel’s conservatives but their impact should not be overstated.

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"The results are a glimmer of hope for the SPD but not a turning point for the federal election in four weeks time," he told the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.

"The outcome shows that the federal election is far from over. The SPD will now go around the country pointing at Thuringia and Saarland and say that an alliance of the Union (Merkel’s conservatives) and the FDP has no majority."

Newspapers warned Steinmeier against getting too confident just yet.

The Financial Times Deutschland said the CDU lost votes because the last state elections had been marked by a backlash against the government of SPD then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and because of local issues.

"Interpreting this setback (for Merkel) as a clear signal of a turnaround in the battle for Berlin in four weeks is wide of the mark," the paper said.

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