Merkel quashes coalition break-up talk after vote debacle

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday quashed speculation that her ruling coalition could fall apart after her junior partners suffered a humiliating defeat in regional elections in Berlin.

"I think our work in the government will continue and I do not think things will get more difficult," she said after the Free Democrats (FDP) scored a paltry 1.8 percent in the poll.

"The coalition is working and ... we have several challenges ahead of us. I think that all coalition partners are aware of their tasks and will take on this work in all seriousness," she told reporters.

She added she was confident she would clinch enough votes in a pivotal parliamentary vote on the euro rescue fund, amid threats from some coalition MPs to block or abstain on the bill that will be closely watched by markets.

Meanwhile, the FDP's leader, Philipp Roesler, who is also economy minister and vice chancellor, acknowledged that the party was "in the hardest position we have been in since we came into existence" after World War II.

"I will say this very clearly. For me, yesterday's election night was the worst since I became a member of the FDP," a disconsolate Roesler told reporters.

The Social Democrats, who won the Berlin election hands down but are in opposition at the national level, had a field day, noting the FDP came just ahead of an animal welfare group.

"To compare the FDP with the animal protection party would be unfair to the animal protection party," said a triumphant Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats.

Newspapers also leapt on the debacle, with the country's most-read daily Bild screaming: "Liberals in ruins... what a humiliation."

Although Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) managed a small gain in support in Berlin, the vote -- the last in this so-called "super election year" -- caps a miserable series of results for the ruling coalition.

In seven regional elections in 2011, the FDP have been ignominiously shut out of the state parliament in five.

The CDU have fared scarcely better, losing support in all but one election and suffering the indignity of ceding the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which it had governed for 58 years, to the Greens.

In Berlin, it scored 23.4 percent, coming a distant second to the Social Democrats, the biggest opposition party on the national level, who gained 28.3 percent.

After winning federal elections in 2009 -- largely on the coat-tails of the FDP, which scored 14.6 percent -- Merkel hailed the coalition as the "dream team" to lead Europe's top economy.

But both parties have seen voters drift away amid anger over Merkel's handling of the euro crisis, the FDP's failure to push through promised tax cuts and constant internal bickering.

This squabbling intensified in the week before the election, with Roesler defying Merkel over the euro crisis by evoking a possible default for debt-mired Greece and sending the markets into a tailspin.

Merkel again issued a warning to Roesler, stressing that "everyone had to weigh their words very carefully" when it came to the euro crisis.

The setback for the coalition came ahead of a key vote on expanding the eurozone's rescue fund on September 29, as an increasingly vocal eurosceptic wing of the FDP seized on the party's unpopularity to push its agenda.

Several FDP members have threatened to vote against the bill and although Merkel is assured of a majority, as the opposition says it will vote in favour, a crisis will likely ensue if she needs to rely on her political foes.

She said she was "confident" she would quell any potential rebellion.

"We had this majority for every other vote on European policy which is why I am confident that we will of course have a majority with our own votes," Merkel said.

Roesler, for his part, stressed the FDP would "of course live up to our government responsibilities."

© 2011 AFP

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