'Strong blow' for Merkel as another ally jumps ship

18th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, wrapping up an Asian tour, ran into fresh turmoil at home Sunday when yet another key ally, Hamburg mayor Ole von Beust, announced he was resigning.

The embattled Merkel was in Kazakhstan Sunday after a trip to China and analysts said her return home would be soured by the unwelcome news from the northern port city, which is also one of Germany's 16 regional states.

Von Beust, a Christian Democrat (CDU) who has governed Hamburg for nearly nine years, told reporters that he would step down on August 25, citing personal reasons.

Six CDU state leaders have left their posts in the last 10 months for various reasons, which the Welt am Sonntag newspaper said showed that the ranks of experienced leaders in Merkel's party was fast dwindling.

"It would not be entirely fair to give the chancellor all the blame for these departures, but at the same time she has to ask herself whether she has done enough for the top players on her team," it said. "The answer is no."

The online service of news weekly Der Spiegel called von Beust's exit a "strong blow" for the 56-year-old Merkel.

She won a second term in last September's elections with her coalition partner of choice, the pro-business Free Democrats, but her government has suffered a free fall in opinion polls since then due to incessant infighting.

The chancellor, called the world's most powerful women by Forbes magazine four years running, has proved unable to corral her ministers, who have been squabbling over issues ranging from tax policy to healthcare reform.

Merkel's biographer Gerd Langguth said that the mass exodus of state leaders and the shock resignation of then president Horst Koehler in May highlighted her party's weaknesses, and exacerbated its problems.

"The ranks are thinning out -- von Beust is of course replaceable but it will take time for others to develop their own profile," Langguth said.

He said the unpopularity of Merkel's government has made life more difficult for conservative politicians throughout the country. "Part of the problem is frustration with politics in general."

Von Beust, 55, is a political moderate who became the first conservative state premier to openly acknowledge his homosexuality, albeit after being "outed" by a rival.

He has led the city-state since 2001 after a bitterly fought election days after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, which were planned and carried out in part by an Al-Qaeda cell based in Hamburg.

In a traditionally leftist city, von Beust courted the urban constituency and was successful in winning new voters for the conservative camp.

In 2008 he formed with Merkel's approval the country's first alliance between the CDU and the ecologist Greens party -- an intriguing tie-up that analysts say could serve as a model one day on the national level.

But Hamburg, the richest city in Germany and its second most populous, has run into trouble with its public finances of late -- most recently seen in the runaway costs of a spectacular symphony hall whose construction is under way.

Media reports said von Beust aimed to abandon the stress of political life in favour of more time on the posh North Sea holiday island Sylt.

© 2010 AFP

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