Berlin poll to cap horror elections year for Merkel

14th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces another election setback Sunday capping a dire year at the polls, as she battles a eurozone crisis that is also wreaking havoc in her conservative government.

The Social Democrats and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit look poised to hold onto city hall in the capital, which is also one of Germany's 16 states, and relegate Merkel's conservatives to a distant second or even third place.

Voters have repeatedly punished Merkel's Christian Democrats, in part over her tentative handling of Europe's debt crisis and squabbling in her coalition, leading to losses in support in five of seven state polls this year.

Wowereit, a glad-handing big city politician who became the first openly gay leader of a German state in 2001, is expected to scoop up around 32 percent of the vote, improving on his 30.8-percent score at the last election in 2006.

The Christian Democrats are running neck-and-neck at around 20 percent with the Greens, whose candidate Renate Kuenast, a relative heavyweight as a former federal consumer affairs minister, has seen her election drive flounder.

Although the ecologist party had been flying high in Germany due to its fervent opposition to nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Kuenast has proved an erratic campaigner in Berlin.

Meanwhile the liberal Free Democrats, junior partners in Merkel's fractious coalition, look unlikely to clear the five-percent hurdle for representation, after a disastrous showing in another state election this month.

While the poll will have no direct bearing on Merkel's parliamentary majority, it will dampen morale just as the coalition seeks to rally support ahead of a crucial eurozone rescue package vote at the end of September.

Merkel fears a backbenchers' revolt in the Bundestag lower house which could threaten her own majority.

And she was forced Tuesday to smack down her own deputy chancellor, Philipp Roesler, over comments he made about a possible Greek default.

At the end of a "marathon" series of election this year, Berlin's poll "will have a symbolic impact with the reinstatement of a Social Democrat in the capital," political scientist Gerd Langguth of the University of Bonn said.

Merkel, whom Forbes magazine last month named the world's most powerful woman, has seen her popularity at home steadily erode due to accusations of weak leadership.

She has slipped to fifth place in the ranks of Germany's politicians after becoming the most popular chancellor of the post-war period during her first term 2005-2009.

Langguth said Merkel nevertheless looked set to ride out the turmoil until the 2013 general election.

"Merkel has solid nerves, she can continue to govern," Langguth said, adding, "It is not unusual for a government to be sanctioned (by voters) at mid-term."

The pressure at the polls will also let up next year with only a sole state election, tiny Schleswig-Holstein.

In Berlin, the campaign has been dominated by rising rents in what has long been one of Europe's most affordable capitals, making it a haven for young tourists and struggling artists.

The city which was divided for 28 years by its despised Wall has become one of sharp contrasts. While gentrification has spruced up blighted neighbourhoods, the unemployment rate remains at 13 percent versus seven percent across the country.

It also has a large immigrant population -- about 13.5 percent -- with varying degrees of integration, including the largest Turkish population outside Turkey.

"(Berlin) is growing wildly -- there is no grand plan, or any limits," news magazine Der Spiegel wrote this week.

© 2011 AFP

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