Merkel coalition in Berlin state vote setback: exit poll

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition suffered a major blow in Berlin's state vote Sunday, exit polls suggested, weakening her politically as Europe looks to her to fight its debt crisis.

Merkel's conservatives were beaten into second place by the opposition Social Democrats, while her coalition partners, the Free Democrats, failed to scrape over the five-percent hurdle needed to enter the state parliament.

Winning the election hands down with 29.5 percent of the vote, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the German capital's popular mayor Klaus Wowereit must now choose a coalition partner in the city-state of 3.5 million.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) scored 23.5 percent of the vote, according to exit polls published by ARD television.

In a small comfort for Merkel and her conservatives, this represented an improvement compared to the 21.3 percent scored during the last Berlin state election in 2006.

But her junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), continued to leak support, gaining 2.0 percent of the vote compared to 7.6 percent five years ago.

The Pirate Party, an irreverent outfit with roots in Scandinavia, which calls for free wireless Internet service for all, unlimited access to public transportation funded by taxes and better data protection, won 8.5 percent.

This ensured the party's first entry into one of the regional parliaments in Germany's 16 states.

The far-left Linke party, currently in coalition with Wowereit's SPD, secured 11.5 percent of the vote compared to 13.4 percent in the last election.

Meanwhile, the ecologist Greens, flying high in Germany since Japan's Fukushima catastrophe in March due to their anti-nuclear stance, polled 11.5 percent of the vote.

At the outset, it appeared as if the resurgent Greens might challenge Wowereit for power with their high-profile candidate, former federal consumer affairs minister Renate Kuenast, but she has proved an erratic campaigner.

While the poll will have no direct bearing on Merkel's parliamentary majority, it will dampen morale just as the coalition seeks to rally support ahead of a crucial eurozone rescue package vote at the end of September.

Merkel fears a backbenchers' revolt in the Bundestag lower house which could threaten her own majority.

It caps a horror year for the leader of Europe's top economy, who has been accused of showing a lack of leadership during the debt crisis and failing to quell unruly elements in her prickly centre-right coalition.

Meanwhile the Social Democrats, the biggest opposition party at the national level, hope the Berlin vote can give it another boost on the road to the 2013 general election.

© 2011 AFP

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