Merkel coalition loses key poll

May 10, 2010 12:00 am

, BERLIN, May 10 – Chancellor Angela Merkel\’s coalition suffered a stinging defeat in a pivotal German state poll that also cost it its majority in the upper house amid voter rage over a Greek bail-out.

Just two days after parliament approved the huge rescue package for Greece, voters in the western region of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany\’s most populous state, Sunday handed Merkel\’s centre-right alliance a crushing setback.

Merkel\’s Christian Democrats (CDU) drew just 34.6 percent — their worst result ever in NRW — with allies the Free Democrats (FDP) at 6.7 percent, as the final results robbed them of their majority in the state legislature.

The opposition centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) scored 34.5 percent, failing to profit from the conservatives\’ misery, with the ecologist Greens at a strong 12.1 percent and the far-left Die Linke on 5.6 percent.

With no clear winner, the results mean that the two strongest parties will scramble to cobble together a ruling alliance, or perhaps link up to form a "grand coalition".

The impact on the national level was disastrous for Merkel\’s alliance, erasing its majority in the Bundesrat upper house, representing Germany\’s 16 states. This will hobble the chancellor in pushing through key reforms in Europe\’s top economy and raise serious questions about her leadership.

NRW is ruled by the same centre-right coalition Merkel has in Berlin, making the poll a damaging referendum on her government in its first electoral test since Merkel began her second term in October.

The state is also home to the Ruhr rust belt region whose economic suffering has deepened in the recession.

News weekly Der Spiegel on its website called the result a "double debacle" for the centre-right while the top-selling daily Bild said it was a "political landslide", in which voters gave Merkel\’s government a "lesson they will not forget during this term" running to 2013.

Conservative NRW premier Juergen Ruettgers blamed headwinds from Berlin, where the governing coalition has been marred by squabbling since it took power in October, for his "bitter" defeat.

"It had to do with the government in Berlin\’s start but also the difficult situation in Greece," he said.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who is also Merkel\’s vice-chancellor and foreign minister, called the poll result a "warning shot" from voters that would have clear national consequences.

"Citizens need to know that we have heard their message. We must redouble our efforts to win back their lost confidence in our work," he said.

The timing of the election could hardly have been worse for Merkel\’s centre-right alliance, which has ruled NRW since 2005.

Germans strongly oppose the 22.4 billion euros (28.6 billion dollars) in loans over three years to debt-wracked Athens approved Friday as part of an IMF-EU rescue deal as Berlin grapples with its own dire fiscal straits.

Underlining the poll\’s importance, Merkel scheduled 15 personal appearances in the state and staged a media blitz this week to defend the aid to Greece.

But the chancellor has also faced criticism in Germany and abroad of dragging her feet over the loans and thereby exacerbating the crisis.

The Social Democrats abstained in Friday\’s vote on the Greek rescue package.

The loss of the Bundesrat will effectively halt an FDP drive to cut income taxes by 16 billion euros from 2012.

It will also give the opposition the power to block health care reforms planned by the coalition, and to restore an initiative to mothball the country\’s nuclear reactors against the wishes of Merkel\’s government.

The NRW vote\’s impact will be lasting as well as it is the only state election this year.


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