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German nuclear fears trigger Merkel poll debacle

BERLIN – Agence France-Presse | 3/28/2011 12:00:00 AM |

Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives loose power in their German heartland after nearly six decades as fears over Japan's nuclear crisis give a big boost to the anti-nuclear opposition Greens in the crucial poll. But experts say Merkel's coalition will hold on, in large part because the opposition is still too weak and her party lacks a viable challenger to her

Fears over Japan's nuclear crisis triggered a poll debacle for Chancellor Angela Merkel's party in its German heartland and a Greens triumph, but analysts said Monday her weakened government would survive.

Merkel's Christian Democrats, or CDU, have ruled wealthy Baden-Wuerttemberg, which has an economy the size of Belgium's, for 58 years. But her on-again, off-again support for nuclear power spooked voters ahead of the crucial poll.

The anti-nuclear Greens won a record 24 percent of the vote Sunday - doubling their 2006 score - and were likely for the first time to lead a coalition with the Social Democrats, who garnered 23 percent.

The opposition edged out Merkel's party and the Free Democrats, or FDP, their junior partners in the state and at national level, who claimed a dismal 44 percent between them with high voter participation.

Forty-five percent of voters called nuclear power a key issue in light of the disaster in Japan, and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the FDP leader, pledged another rethink in Berlin. "The dreadful events in Japan, the nuclear accident in Fukushima and the consequences for us in Germany: these were the most decisive topics in this state election," Westerwelle told supporters. "It was a referendum on the future of atomic energy."

Green candidate Winfried Kretschmann, 62, who is expected to become the party's first state leader in Germany after campaigning hard on the nuclear issue, claimed a "historic victory." The result in the state bordering France and Switzerland marked a humiliating setback for Merkel, 56, after drubbings in North Rhine-Westphalia in May and Hamburg in February.

But commentators said Merkel's coalition would hold on, in large part because the opposition is still too weak at the national level and her party lacks a viable challenger to her. "The CDU has no one," newsweekly Der Spiegel wrote on its website. "It is chained to Merkel, at least until the next scheduled federal election (in 2013)."

"The coalition will not fall apart, nor will there be new elections," Merkel biographer Gerd Langguth said. "Both camps, the Union and the FDP, would not benefit from early federal elections so they have no interest in calling them," he told the daily Passauer Neue Presse.

Beyond a stinging blow to morale in Berlin, the loss will make it even harder for Merkel to pass legislation in the Bundesrat upper house and has already prompted fresh calls for her to shore up her rightist credentials.

Declaring Japan's emergency a "turning point", Merkel suspended for three months an earlier decision to postpone the planned shutdown of all of Germany's nuclear reactors, four of which are based in Baden-Wuerttemberg. She also temporarily shut off the country's seven oldest reactors pending a safety review.

Nuclear power is unpopular in Germany, but polls indicated that voters saw Merkel's zigzagging as an electoral ploy: it cost her support while boosting the Greens. Adding to the pressure, tens of thousands of Germans hit the streets Saturday in four major cities to protest the government's nuclear policy. Organizers said as many as 250,000 took part.

In a further triumph for the Greens Sunday, they tripled their score in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate to 15 percent which will force the Social Democrats to cede their absolute majority and join them in a coalition.

The pro-business FDP failed to clear the five-percent hurdle for representation in the state, which will turn up the pressure on the already embattled Westerwelle in a "super" election year with three more polls to come.

"The aftershocks of this earthquake will cause confusion in the Berlin coalition," the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote. "That will primarily zero in on the ongoing weakness of the FDP, which does not have convincing government personnel, neither in Stuttgart nor at the federal level," it said, referring to the capital of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

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