Merkel under fire after 'double debacle' election defeat

10th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced stinging attacks on her leadership Monday after voters, furious over a colossal bail-out for Greece, handed her coalition a disastrous defeat in a state poll.

Just two days after parliament approved the huge Greek rescue package, the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous, gave Merkel's centre-right alliance Sunday what the press called a "double debacle".

The poll drubbing robs Merkel's coalition of its dominance both in the state legislature and the Bundesrat upper house of parliament at a moment in which the 16-nation eurozone, and Germany as its top economy, face a historic crisis.

North Rhine-Westphalia, with its 13.5 million voters, is ruled by the same centre-right tie-up Merkel has in Berlin, making the poll a damaging referendum on her government in its first electoral test since she was re-elected in September.

The centre-left daily Tagesspiegel said Merkel had dithered as the eurozone struggles to regain stability after the Greek debt turmoil, and paid the price at the polls.

"Never before has a federal government's fear of a state election had such a disastrous impact on the EU and the stability of the euro. Merkel played tactical games for weeks before having to make promises after all, and what is the end result? Black-yellow bankruptcy in North Rhine-Westphalia and a crisis for Europe," it said, referring to the colours of the centre-right coalition.

"The chancellor, the great tactician, lacks the self-confidence and courage to follow her instincts in a crisis."

The timing of the election could hardly have been worse for Merkel's centre-right alliance, which has ruled North Rhine-Westphalia since 2005.

Germans strongly oppose the 22.4 billion euros (28.6 billion dollars) in loans over three years to debt-wracked Athens approved Friday as part of an EU-IMF rescue as Berlin struggles with its own parlous public finances.

And on Sunday, the European Union announced an emergency trillion-dollar rescue package for crisis-hit eurozone countries to which Germany will also make a major contribution.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) drew just 34.6 percent -- their worst result ever in the state -- with allies the Free Democrats (FDP) at 6.7 percent, depriving them of their majority in the state legislature.

The opposition centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) scored 34.5 percent, failing to profit from the conservatives' misery, with the ecologist Greens at a strong 12.1 percent and the far-left Die Linke on 5.6 percent.

With no clear winner, the results mean that the two strongest parties will scramble to cobble together a ruling alliance, or perhaps link up to form a "grand coalition".

But the impact for national politics was clearly calamitous, with Merkel's alliance sacrificing its majority in the Bundesrat. This will hobble the government in pushing through its tax and health care reform agenda.

"The results show deep anxiety of voters with their government," political scientist Barbara Riedmueller of Berlin's Free University told AFP.

Conservative NRW premier Juergen Ruettgers blamed headwinds from Berlin, where the governing coalition has been marred by squabbling since it took power in October, for his "bitter" defeat.

"It had to do with the government in Berlin's start but also the difficult situation in Greece," he said.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, Merkel's vice-chancellor and foreign minister, called the poll result a "warning shot" from voters that would have clear national consequences.

"Citizens need to know that we have heard their message. We must redouble our efforts to win back their lost confidence in our work," he said.

Top-selling daily Bild said that the state election marked a "political landslide", in which voters gave Merkel's government a "lesson they will not forget during this term" running to 2013.

© 2010 AFP

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