State vote win points to sunny road ahead for Merkel
Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats saw their share of the vote in Hesse inch up less than half a percentage point but compared to the debacle suffered by the Social Democrats, it was a dream result.
Berlin -- Germany's Social Democrats licked their wounds Monday after a historic drubbing in a key state vote at the start of a marathon election year expected to deliver Chancellor Angela Merkel to a second term.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) saw their share of the vote in Hesse, home of the financial hub Frankfurt, inch up less than half a percentage point.
But compared to the debacle suffered by the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the national coalition, it was a dream result with eight months to go before the general election.
"This bodes well for the battles we are facing this year," Merkel told reporters, flanked by the re-elected Hesse state premier, Roland Koch.
The chancellor acknowledged that her party had not made the gains it had expected in the poll. But she said the strong majority won by the CDU with its partner of choice, the Free Democrats (FDP), was extremely promising.
"I must say honestly that the clarity of the majority of the CDU and the FDP in Hesse -- and Roland Koch pointed out that that has not been the case for decades -- gives me a positive feeling," she said.
The big winners were the Free Democrats who are gearing up to play kingmakers if the CDU emerges triumphant, as predicted, in the national poll in September.
The FDP scored 16.2 percent, a leap of 6.8 points, paving the way to a centre-right coalition in the western state -- the fifth such constellation nationwide, in Germany's five most populous states.
Commentators noted that the conservatives had not suffered in the polls despite Merkel's hesitant approach to the worst economic slowdown since the war but that they would likely have to rely on the FDP's strength this year.
"The Christian Democrats, in the grand coalition with the SPD, have lost their profile to a considerable degree; the FDP seems the only guardian of the social market economy," the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said.
The SPD took an even bigger hammering Sunday than pollsters had predicted: its share of the vote slumped 13 points to 23.7 percent, its worst result in the western state yet, and almost 14 points adrift of the CDU's 37.2 percent.
The conservative Berliner Morgenpost daily called the result "devastating" and "catastrophic" for the SPD, Germany's oldest political party.
Local issues were at play in Hesse, not least the disastrous decision of the SPD's local chief last year to renege on a pre-election pledge not to work with the far-left Die Linke in her attempts to form a coalition.
Analysts noted that the SPD's tricky relations with Die Linke, a loose-knit grouping of former East German communists and disaffected Social Democrats, would likely haunt it all year.
"They will have to be very careful not to play around with link-ups with Die Linke, particularly in the western states," political scientist Oskar Niedermayer of Berlin's Free University warned, saying that the outfit was still a pariah to moderate voters.
The election was seen as a key test before the whole country goes to the polls on September 27, when the CDU and the SPD aim to ditch their national "grand coalition" and govern with someone more to their liking.
It is not just a two-horse race, however. In German politics, coalition arithmetic often gives smaller parties an outsized role as crucial partners for building a ruling majority.
The SPD's partner of choice, the ecologist Greens won 13.7 percent in Hesse, up 6.2 points, while the far-left Die Linke just made it into the state parliament with 5.4 percent, up 0.3 points.
Germany is at the start of a "super election year" with no less than 16 votes taking place at state, local, European and national level.
What is upping the stakes of this ballot box marathon is the fact that Germany is heading for its deepest recession since the Federal Republic was born in 1949 as the global slowdown hits its export-heavy economy.