Merkel coalition loses state poll, upper house majority

9th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition suffered a stinging defeat in a state poll Sunday that cost it its majority in the upper house, preliminary results showed, amid voter anger over a Greek bail-out.

Just two days after parliament approved the colossal loan package for Greece, voters in the western region of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany's most populous state, handed Merkel's centre-right alliance a bitter setback.

Merkel's Christian Democrats won around 34 percent with coalition allies the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) polling 6.5 percent, leaving them well short of a majority in the state legislature.

Meanwhile, the opposition centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) also polled around 34 percent, the Greens 12.5 percent and the relatively new political outfit, the far-left Linke party, scored six percent.

The centre-right's loss means the coalition will sacrifice its majority in the Bundesrat upper house, hobbling Merkel's ability to push through key reforms in Europe's top economy.

"I can only warn the CDU against trying to put a positive spin on this result. It is a huge disappointment," said Wolfgang Bosbach, a leading member of Merkel's party.

"We have clearly fallen short of our goal of maintaining our coalition in NRW."

The timing of the election could hardly have been worse for Merkel's Christian Democrats, who have ruled NRW in an alliance with the pro-business FDP since 2005.

Most Germans oppose the 22.4 billion euros (28.6 billion dollars) in loans over three years to debt-wracked Greece as Germany grapples with its own dire fiscal straits.

NRW was ruled by the same centre-right coalition Merkel has in Berlin, making the poll a damaging referendum on her government eight months after she won re-election.

The state is also home to the Ruhr rust belt region whose economic misery has deepened in the recession.

A poll published Saturday showed that 21 percent of NRW voters said the Greek bail-out would affect their ballot decision, according to a YouGov survey for the daily Bild.

Underlining the poll's importance, Merkel scheduled 15 personal appearances in NRW and staged a media blitz this week to defend the aid to Greece.

But the chancellor has also faced criticism in Germany and abroad of dragging her feet over the loans for Athens and thereby exacerbating the crisis.

The SPD abstained in Friday's vote on the Greek loan package.

Beyond control of the NRW state legislature, the dominance of Merkel's coalition in the Bundesrat upper house is now history.

Currently, the conservatives and the FDP hold 37 of the 69 seats in the Bundesrat, just over the 35 votes needed for an absolute majority. Losing NRW deprives the centre-right of six seats.

That will effectively axe a drive by the FDP to cut income taxes by 16 billion euros from 2012 -- a move many conservatives, and many voters, oppose as fiscally irresponsible in light of Germany's parlous public finances.

It will also give the centre-left the power to block health care reforms planned by the coalition, and to restore an initiative to mothball the country's nuclear reactors against the wishes of the Merkel government.

The vote's impact will be long-lasting as well as it is the only state election planned this year.

"Scarcely one of the big projects that the conservatives and the FDP promised seven months ago in their coalition agreement will -- if the polls are correct -- survive this Sunday," the Tagesspiegel am Sonntag newspaper said.

© 2010 AFP

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