Germany Bremen vote likely to hurt Merkel standing

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A regional election in Germany's state of Bremen on Sunday, seen as likely to further hurt the standing of Angela Merkel's federal government, for the first time involves voters as young as 16.

The number of those aged 16 and 17 taking part for the first time was however not expected to exceed two percent of the overall voter population of about 500,000, and was unlikely to significantly affect the result.

Voter turnout at noon (1000 GMT) was just over 20 percent.

The election in the smallest of the country's 16 states was expected to see the outgoing ruling coalition of Social-Democrats (SPD) and Greens returned to power.

But Chancellor Merkel's conservative Christian-Democrats (CDU) were expected to be swept into third place, and her allies in the federal government, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), were tipped to lose all their seats in the regional assembly.

This would mark a new drubbing for the conservative-liberal federal government, which has already lost control of the Bundesrat upper house of parliament, made up of representatives from the regional states, and seen its support eroded in every election so far this year.

In March, the CDU even lost Baden-Wuerttemberg, a southwestern state which it had governed for nearly six decades.

The FDP, for its part, has gone from bad to worse, failing to win seats in two of the four state elections held to date and faring scarcely better in a third.

The Greens, by comparison, have gone from strength to strength, helped in part by worries over nuclear energy in the wake of the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster.

Bremen, a debt-ridden city-port, has been run by the left-wing SPD since the end of World War II and polls predicted they would win between 36 and 37 percent of the vote.

Their Green allies were expected to take some 24 percent, up from 16.5 percent in the 2007 election, returning the alliance to power with a large majority.

Bremen was the first regional state to elect environmentalists in 1979.

Polls also predicted that the CDU, which came second in the 2007 election with 25.6 percent of the vote, would this time drop into third place, taking just 19 to 20 percent of the vote.

And the FDP, which scored six percent of the vote in 2007, was expected to drop below the five percent threshold needed to win representation.

This was the first time in a German regional election that voters as young as 16 were invited to go to the polls.

In federal and regional elections in Germany's other 15 states, voters have to be 18 and over.

Only in municipal elections, in seven states, do 16-year-olds already have the right to vote.

The decision to allow younger people to vote was taken by the Bremen regional assembly in 2009 in a bid to boost their interest in the political process.

Since then, a number of top politicians, including Claudia Roth, co-chairperson of the Greens, Miriam Gruss, a spokeswoman for the FDP, and Franz Muenterfering, a former SPD leader, have all called for lowering the voting age to 16 in federal elections.

"Bremen will allow for taking the pulse of the German electorate, but won't impact the Merkel government's room to manoeuvre," according to Nils Diederich, a political scientist from Berlin's Free University.

In addition, "parties in power (at the federal level) traditionally tend to do poorly in regional polls held between general elections," according to Gerd Langgruth, a political scientist in Bonn, the former capital.

Initial exit poll results were expected around 1600 GMT, but final results could take several days because of a complicated counting process.

© 2011 AFP

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