German nuclear fears prompt Merkel party poll debacle

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Fears over the Japan nuclear crisis led to a crushing defeat for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in their German heartland Sunday, as the ecologist Greens roared to a historic triumph.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have ruled wealthy Baden-Wuerttemberg, home to industrial giants Daimler and Bosch, for 58 years, but her support for nuclear power spooked voters in the run-up to the crucial poll.

The anti-nuclear Greens won about 24 percent of the vote -- around 12 points higher than in 2006 -- and were likely for the first time to lead a coalition with the Social Democrats, who garnered about 23 percent.

Newsweekly Der Spiegel's website called the outcome for the two parties, based on preliminary results released on public television, a "sensation", while the top-selling Bild heralded a "mega-victory" for the Greens.

The opposition edged out Merkel's party and the Free Democrats (FDP), their junior partners in the state and at the national level, who looked set to claim a dismal 44 percent between them.

Forty-five percent of voters called nuclear a key issue in light of the disaster in Japan, and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the FDP leader, pledged that the election would prompt a rethink in Berlin.

"The dreadful events in Japan, the nuclear accident in Fukushima and the consequences for us in Germany: these were the most decisive topics in this state election," Westerwelle said.

"It was a referendum on the future of atomic energy."

Social Democrats leader Sigmar Gabriel declared: "Today the final decision on the end of nuclear power in Germany was made."

Green candidate Winfried Kretschmann, who could become the party's first state leader in Germany, claimed a "historic victory".

"It's a dream come true. ... We could never have dreamed of a result like this a few days ago," added Franz Untersteller, a Greens spokesman.

The result in the state bordering France and Switzerland marked a debacle for Merkel, 56, after drubbings in North Rhine-Westphalia in May and Hamburg in February.

Meanwhile, in a further triumph for the Greens, strong gains in another election in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate will force the Social Democrats to cede their absolute majority and join them in a coalition.

The pro-business FDP failed to clear the five percent hurdle for representation in Rhineland-Palatinate, which will boost the pressure on the already embattled Westerwelle.

Analysts said Merkel's coalition was expected to survive.

But beyond a crushing blow to morale in Berlin, a defeat will make it even harder for Merkel to pass legislation in the Bundesrat upper house and likely prompt fresh calls for her to shore up her rightist credentials.

Campaigning in the state was dominated by the nuclear catastrophe in Japan, where officials Sunday discovered high radiation levels in water leaked from a stricken reactor at the Fukushima plant.

Calling Japan's crisis a "turning point", Merkel suspended for three months an earlier decision to extend the lifetime of Germany's nuclear reactors, four of which are based in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

She also temporarily shut off the country's seven oldest reactors pending a safety review.

Nuclear power is unpopular in Germany, but polls indicated that voters saw Merkel's zigzagging as an electoral ploy: it cost her support while boosting the Greens.

Adding to the pressure, tens of thousands of Germans hit the streets Saturday in four major cities to protest the government's nuclear policy. Organisers said as many as 250,000 took part.

In addition to the nuclear climb-down, conservatives have frowned on Berlin's abstention from a UN Security Council vote to create a no-fly zone in Libya, in a historic break with Western allies.

Critics saw the move as another sign of pandering, this time to a strong pacifist streak in the German electorate.

© 2011 AFP

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