Germany's Merkel more alone after another ally walks out

19th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked increasingly lonely Monday after another key ally, the mayor of Hamburg, jumped ship as part of a mass exodus of experienced conservatives.

Ole von Beust, leader of Germany's second city which is also one of 16 regional states, announced he was quitting in August for personal reasons with another three years to go in his term.

He is the sixth conservative state premier to leave his post in 10 months, and follows the shock resignation of president Horst Koehler in May over remarks linking Germany's Afghanistan mission to national economic interests.

In a joint statement to reporters, Merkel thanked von Beust for his service while he insisted he was leaving "bearing no grudge". But the two took no questions at what was announced as a press conference.

A political moderate, von Beust was a valuable asset to Merkel, with a proven ability to draw urban voters to her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in a traditionally leftist city.

Merkel, Forbes magazine's most powerful woman in the world four years running, had already been facing serious questions about her leadership due to sinking poll numbers and incessant back-biting in her centre-right government.

Veteran CDU deputy Wolfgang Bosbach said the rash of departures, albeit for various political reasons, "created the impression of a process of erosion", in remarks published by the online service of the Handelsblatt business daily.

A leader of the opposition Greens' parliamentary group, Juergen Trittin, crowed: "Everyone has been driven to despair by Angela Merkel."

The press said the air was getting thinner for her.

"Angela Merkel has lost a longtime friend, someone whose advice she trusted, whom she listened to, someone with political heft," the mass-selling daily Bild said. "Governing won't get any easier for her."

Political scientist Klaus Schubert of the University of Muenster said that Merkel had steered the CDU into a serious crisis.

"You can certainly blame the party leader for a lack of orientation, and for failing to offer a new definition of conservatism," he told AFP.

Two polls last week showed that only 31 to 33 percent of voters support the CDU and just five to six percent back the Free Democrats, Merkel's coalition partners in Berlin since she won a second term last September.

The opposition Social Democrats have gained ground to between 30 and 32 percent, now running neck-and-neck with the conservatives.

Von Beust, 55, is a centrist, like Merkel, and became the first conservative state premier to openly acknowledge his homosexuality, albeit after being "outed" by a rival.

In 2008 he formed with Merkel's approval the country's first alliance between the CDU and the Green party -- an intriguing tie-up that analysts say could serve as a model one day on the national level.

But Hamburg, the richest city in Germany, has run into trouble with its public finances of late -- most recently seen in the runaway costs of a spectacular symphony hall under construction.

And Sunday, von Beust saw one of the centrepieces of his political programme -- a reform of the city's school system -- defeated in a referendum.

Merkel's biographer Gerd Langguth noted that the one advantage to the 56-year-old chancellor of the growing dearth in seasoned CDU personnel was that she had fewer potential challengers.

"And partly because of that, Merkel is still firmly in the saddle," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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