Germany's Merkel suffers blow in key state election
Jan 26, 2008
BERLIN (AFP) German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives suffered heavy losses in a key state Sunday, in a significant setback for her authority ahead of national elections next year.
Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) finished almost neck-and-neck with the Social Democrats (SPD) in Hesse, the economically powerful western state where they were defending an absolute majority.
The CDU could still cling on to power in the state by forming a coalition government, but it was their worst score there for more than 40 years, according to preliminary official results.
The conservatives' decision to run a bitterly divisive campaign based on tough measures to deal with young criminals from immigrant backgrounds appeared to have seriously backfired.
The election was Merkel's first genuine test at the ballot box since she came to power in 2005 at the head of a fractious power-sharing government of the CDU and the SPD.
It was also seen as a testing ground for policy issues for the 2009 federal election.
As expected, the CDU scored a clear victory in the neighbouring state of Lower Saxony in another election held on Sunday, but that could not hide the party's disappointment at the outcome in Hesse, home to the financial centre of Frankfurt.
Hesse's incumbent state leader Roland Koch said: “Naturally, our diminished score is not pleasant for us, or for me personally. It will be difficult to form a government.”
His left-wing SPD challenger, Andrea Ypsilanti, celebrated a remarkable comeback after trailing in the polls for much of the campaign.
She said voters had rejected the conservatives' hardline rhetoric.
“Tonight we can genuinely say that Social Democracy is back,” she told supporters.
“We fought for a different political culture… and we won.”
The preliminary official results in Hesse showed the CDU with 36.8 percent and the SPD on 36.7 percent, meaning the conservatives' score had plummeted more than 10 points compared with the last election in 2003.
Both parties will now seek coalition partners to form a government.
In Lower Saxony, the CDU won about 42.5 percent of the votes — lower than their score in 2003 but still comfortably ahead of the Social Democrats' 30.3 percent, preliminary results showed.
The score in Hesse was doubly embarrassing for Merkel because she had given Koch strong backing for his stance following a series of highly publicised attacks on older Germans by youngsters of foreign origin.
One, in a Munich underground rail station, was recorded by security cameras which showed two youths repeatedly kicking a man slumped on the ground.
Koch's proposals included deporting offenders, drawing accusations of racism from centrists and immigrant groups.
“It is a big defeat for Roland Koch, but also for Angela Merkel who has supported him,” said the co-leader of the opposition Greens, Claudia Roth.
Observers said the CDU had made a serious misjudgement.
“Roland Koch chose the wrong issue and ran the wrong campaign,” the left-wing Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper said in an editorial in its Monday edition.
If the conservatives lose control of Hesse, it is likely to put further strain on Merkel's already fragile “grand coalition” in Berlin.
It would also be likely to give SPD chief Kurt Beck fresh impetus in his bid to dismantle labour market reforms which are credited with helping to propel a recovery in Europe's biggest economy.
The CDU faces another fight to hold on to power next month when voters go to the polls in the city-state of Hamburg.
Koch is a powerful figure in Merkel's party but his star is now likely to fall.
By contrast, the convincing victory of CDU premier Christian Wulff, 48, in Lower Saxony will see him stake a claim as the eventual successor to 53-year-old Merkel.
Sunday's elections also underlined the continued rise of the Left Party, a year-old coalition of former communists and disgruntled Social Democrats which passed the five-percent threshold required to gain seats in both Hesse and Lower Saxony.