Merkel's party wins state poll at start of super election year

19th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Eight months before the whole of Germany goes to the polls on September 27, the SPD recorded its worst ever score in Hesse, slumping around 13 points to less than 24 percent.

Berlin -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives clinched a decisive win in a state election Sunday, preliminary results showed, at the start of a super voting year expected to propel her to a second term.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) captured around 37 percent of the poll in Hesse, home to Germany's finance capital Frankfurt, according to provisional official results broadcast on public television.

This was only a slight increase, but what was significant was that they trounced the rival centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) -- junior partners to Merkel's CDU in the uneasy "grand coalition" at federal level.

Eight months before the whole of Germany goes to the polls on September 27, the SPD recorded its worst ever score in Hesse, slumping around 13 points to less than 24 percent.

In September, both the CDU and the SPD hope to win enough votes to be able to ditch the "grand coalition" and form a national governing coalition with another party.

The CDU's coalition partner of choice, both at state and national level, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), had the best night of all the parties in Hesse, with their score soaring some seven points to around 16 percent.

This paves the way to the FDP and the CDU forming a coalition in the western state, home to just under four and half million voters. The ecologist Greens won 14 percent, up around 7.5 percent, while the hard-left Die Linke barely made it into the state parliament with just over five percent.

The "grand coalition" has been in place since 2005 and it currently has its work cut out fighting what is forecast to be the deepest downturn in Europe's biggest economy in the postwar period.

But with 16 elections planned this year on the regional, state, national and European level, the challenge has been to beat the recession while at the same time go head-to-head at the polls.

Merkel's SPD challenger in September is Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the deputy chancellor and foreign minister. They appeared side-by-side this week unveiling a 50-billion-euro (67-billion-dollar) stimulus package.

Despite criticism of Merkel's initially tentative reaction to the crippling slowdown, the Hesse outcome showed that the CDU appears not to be paying the price with voters, thanks largely to internal squabbling among the SPD.

CDU general secretary Ronald Pofalla said the conservatives were now well-placed to become the top party in the September 27 general election, forecasting it would take over 40 percent of the vote.

"This election success gives us momentum and a tailwind for super election year," Pofalla said.

Although it was expected, political scientist Oskar Niedermayer of Berlin's Free University said the SPD's humiliating defeat in Hesse could have a "psychological effect" and throw the party off its game in the upcoming races.

"The SPD runs the risk of piling up disastrous electoral results every two or three months, which could have an impact on the outcome of the general election," Niedermayer told AFP this week.

SPD party chief Franz Muentefering put a brave face on what he admitted was a "very bad result", predicting that "on September 27 people will vote completely differently from today."

Hesse was already scorched earth for the SPD due to an inconclusive election a year ago after the SPD's chief candidate Andrea Ypsilanti went back on pre-election pledges not to work with Die Linke in her efforts to form a coalition.

The bid failed spectacularly when four rogue Social Democrats withdrew their support, saying their consciences would not allow them to vote for the new government. Ypsilanti quit on Sunday.

The SPD's dealings with the Die Linke, a loose-knit grouping of former East German communists and disaffected Social Democrats, have prompted an identity crisis for the party, leading last year to the ouster of its chief Kurt Beck.

Steinmeier has ruled out working with the Die Linke, which since last year has tapped into voter discontent to shake up the political landscape, on the federal level but has given his blessing to link-ups in the 16 states.

Simon Sturdee/AFP/Expatica

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