Nuclear wake-up call for Merkel in state vote

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel got a wake-up call on nuclear power in light of the Japan crisis on Sunday as the ecologist Greens doubled their score in the second of 2011's seven state elections.

Exit polls in Saxony-Anhalt indicated that Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) came first and were likely to stay in power in coalition with their sworn enemies at national level, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

This was despite the fact that the CDU's share of the vote slipped some three percentage points. The SPD's share of the vote was little changed on 21.5 percent, behind the far-left Die Linke, on 23.5 percent.

The far-right NPD won 4.5 percent, below the five percent needed to enter the state parliament. The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), Merkel's coalition partners at federal level, will also be unrepresented, scoring 3.5 percent.

But the big winners of the vote in the impoverished eastern state -- unemployment stands at 13 percent -- were the Greens, who doubled their score to around seven percent, the exit polls suggested.

Their surge in support was seen as being in large part down to Merkel's stance on nuclear power after Japan's earthquake and tsunami on March 11 pushed reactors at the Fukushima plant close to meltdown.

The result will give the Greens high hopes for a much bigger prize: success in an election next Sunday in the wealthy southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the most important of 2011's electoral tests.

People "want to know, particularly after the tragedy in Japan, what a responsible energy policy will look like", Greens co-head Claudia Roth said.

Baden-Wuerttemberg, where the CDU have ruled since 1953 -- the year before Merkel was born, is home to four nuclear reactors. Saxony-Anhalt has none.

Germany decided a decade ago to go nuclear-free by around 2020 but Merkel last year postponed the switch-off until the mid-2030s despite strong public unease.

But Japan's nuclear emergency prompted her last week to announce a three-month moratorium on the postponement and the temporary shutdown of Germany's seven oldest reactors pending a safety review.

This has not gone down well with voters, however, with a survey Friday showing that nearly seven out of 10 voters thought her moves were "pure electioneering".

A YouGov poll the day before showed that 81 percent of voters thought her actions over nuclear power were "not credible".

"Merkel: no one believes her any more" ran the front-page headline in the Berliner Kurier tabloid.

Polls suggest the Greens are also set to double their vote in Baden-Wuerttemberg, raising the possibility that one of Germany's 16 states might have something no other state has ever had: a Green premier.

Last May an election defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia lost Merkel's national coalition with the pro-business FDP its majority in the federal upper house, making passing legislation more difficult.

And this year's first state election, in Hamburg last month, saw the CDU voted out of city hall by the SPD after a decade in power.

© 2011 AFP

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