Merkel blames 'painful' poll drubbing on nuclear fears

28th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed a "painful" poll debacle in her party's heartland on fears over Japan's nuclear crisis Monday but said she had no plans to reshuffle her weakened government.

She said after a meeting of her conservatives that their loss of power Sunday in wealthy Baden-Wuerttemberg to the anti-nuclear Greens after 58 years at the helm meant that the party could not return to "business as usual".

"This is a watershed moment for the state and also in the history of the Christian Democratic Union. We will have to work through this painful defeat with our friends in Baden-Wuerttemberg for a while to come," she said.

"The debate in connection with the Japanese nuclear plant of Fukushima was clearly what led to our defeat."

After campaigning hard on the nuclear issue, the Greens doubled their score in Baden-Wuerttemberg and are expected to lead their first German state government, in a coalition with the Social Democrats.

The same day, they tripled their result in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Merkel insisted she would maintain her coalition in Berlin with the embattled pro-business Free Democrats, who failed to win seats in Rhineland-Palatinate and barely scraped through in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

"We had trouble at the beginning, that's perfectly clear, but we have accomplished a lot together and we will continue to do so in the remaining years of this term," she said of her almost 18-month-old government.

Forty-five percent of voters in Baden-Wuerttemberg called nuclear power a key issue in light of the emergency in Japan.

Merkel, 56, said she was a supporter of nuclear power but that the post-tsunami troubles at the Fukushima plant had led her to rethink her position.

Declaring Japan's emergency a "turning point", the chancellor had suspended for three months a planned extension of the life of Germany's nuclear reactors, four of which are in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

She also temporarily shut off the country's seven oldest reactors pending a safety review.

"My view of atomic energy has changed since the events in Japan," she said again Monday.

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. Organisers said some 250,000 people turned out.

The euphoric Greens said they had the wind at their backs in a "super" election year with three more polls to come.

"It is obvious that voters are looking to us to play a new role," party leader Cem Ozdemir told reporters. "We want to give the voters who chose us for the first time a new electoral home."

The result in the southwestern 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 successor.

"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.

"The aftershocks of this earthquake will cause confusion in the Berlin coalition," the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote.

© 2011 AFP

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