Merkel coalition suffers Berlin poll rout
Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition suffered a painful blow in a regional election in Berlin Sunday, early results showed, amid voter anger over the German leader's handling of the eurozone debt crisis.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) were beaten into second place in the poll, albeit with a slight rise in support compared to previous elections in 2006.
But the junior partner in her fractious coalition, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), continued to plummet in support, failing by a wide margin to clear the five-percent hurdle needed in Germany for representation in parliament.
Berlin's popular and colourful Social Democrat mayor, Klaus Wowereit, secured 29.2 percent of the vote, according to initial results published by ARD television channel, meaning he must now choose which party to select as coalition partner.
The CDU won 23.4 percent, a gain in comparison to the 21.3 percent they gained five years ago in the left-leaning German capital.
The ecologist Green party, which has seen its popularity gain steadily since Japan's Fukushima catastrophe in March due to their anti-nuclear stance, clinched 17.9 percent.
At the outset, it had appeared as if the resurgent Greens might challenge Wowereit for power with their high-profile candidate, former federal consumer affairs minister Renate Kuenast, but she proved an erratic campaigner.
A major success story of the election was the spectacular rise of the Pirate Party, which secured its first-ever parliamentary representation in one of Germany's 16 states, winning 8.6 percent of the vote.
An irreverent outfit with roots in Scandinavia, the Pirate Party calls for free wireless Internet service for all, unlimited access to public transportation funded by taxes and better data protection.
But the losers of the election were once again to be the FDP, which was ejected from the parliament with a mere 1.8 percent.
This followed a humiliation two weeks ago in Merkel's home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where they were beaten handily by the neo-Nazi NPD party.
"Yet another election debacle for the FDP," commented the country's most-read daily, Bild.
This debacle followed another week of bickering between Merkel and her partners after Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Philipp Roesler evoked a default for debt-wracked Greece, sending markets into a tailspin.
The chancellor, named the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine last month, has failed to rein in unruly FDP members who have threatened to torpedo a key parliamentary vote on the crisis later this month.
The eurozone and its woes played a part in the Berlin election, with the FDP's candidate Christoph Meyer drawing applause on the campaign trail by openly railing against Merkel's euro policy.
Meanwhile the Social Democrats, the biggest opposition party at the national level, hope the Berlin vote can give it another boost on the road to the 2013 general election.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the party's parliamentary leader, earlier Sunday ruled out a return to a "grand coalition" with the CDU if the current coalition were to fall apart.
The party is "in no way available" for a grand coalition, Steinmeier, a former foreign minister, told Handelsblatt.
The 57-year-old hugely popular Wowereit has run a smooth, gaffe-free campaign for a third term in Berlin.
Currently in a coalition with the far-left Linke party, he may opt this time for a tie-up with the Greens.
Backers say Wowereit has helped turn Berlin's weaknesses into strengths, famously calling the cash-strapped capital "poor but sexy" for attracting hordes of tourists and creative types to one of Europe's most affordable cities.
But with a 13-percent jobless rate -- nearly double the national average -- and a staggering 62-billion-euro ($86-billion) mountain of debt more than two decades after the Berlin Wall fell, critics say the city needs a major economic overhaul.
And the Bild tabloid speculated that Wowereit's popularity could serve as a platform for a run at Merkel in the 2013 national elections.
"'Whoever wants Wowereit, must vote SPD' it says on his election posters. What applies for Berliners today, may later apply for all Germans," the paper wrote on its online version.
© 2011 AFP