German state elections strengthen Chancellor Merkel’s ‘grand coalition’
BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s left-right government strengthened its grip on German politics Sunday, with partial results showing the two parties in the ruling coalition likely to win three state elections.In the first electoral test since she took office in November, Merkel’s Christian Democrats won in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Saxony-Anhalt states, preliminary results showed, while the Social Democrats were dominant in Rhineland-Palatinate.The outcome will likely see the main opposition party, the pro-business Free Democrats, pushed out of one or two of the three state parliaments.That would strengthen the majority that Merkel’s coalition holds in the upper house of parliament, where Germany’s 16 states are represented.”It was a good day for the grand coalition and for Mrs. Merkel,” Bernhard Vogel, a veteran Christian Democrat, said on ARD public television. “There are no longer any real hurdles so long as the main parties can agree.”Germany’s two biggest parties, which formed a coalition government at the federal level four months ago, toned down their traditional rivalry in Sunday’s regional races and shelved tougher issues until after the vote.As a result, the state campaigns were unusually bland, marked by sniping over issues such as education, immigration and the recovering economy. Officials reported a low voter turnout.”It was a strange election,” said Rainer Bruederle, a senior member of the Free Democrats, who have struggled to make an impact in opposition. “The two parties in the grand coalition have stabilized each other.”According to preliminary figures released late Sunday, the Christian Democrats won 44 percent of the vote in prosperous Baden-Wuerttemberg, the largest of the three states and home to major industrial firms such as DaimlerChrysler AG. That was not quite enough to give them a majority in the local legislature, meaning the party could continue its coalition with the Free Democrats.In neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, Social Democrat governor Kurt Beck won nearly 46 percent, giving his party enough seats to govern alone there for the first time.In Saxony-Anhalt, an eastern state with more than 20 percent unemployment, the Christian Democrats won about 36 percent. However, their Free Democrat partners slumped to just under 7 percent, leaving the Social Democrats poised to replace them in a local coalition mirroring Merkel’s federal government in Berlin.There was no sign of a breakthrough for either the far right or the new Left Party, made up of former East German communists and Social Democrats disgruntled with what they see as their party’s pro-business approach.”This is a clear signal that the Social Democrats are the main party of the center-left and will remain so,” Social Democrat chairman Matthias Platzeck said.Merkel’s pragmatic, consensual approach and a flurry of well-received foreign trips have sent her approval ratings soaring since she replaced Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder as chancellor in November.She has also struck good working relations with her former political foes, especially Vice Chancellor Franz Muentefering, who masterminded Schroeder’s abrasive campaign last year.However, analysts point out that Merkel’s government has yet to tackle divisive issues such as reforming the creaking health service and deciding what role nuclear power will play in meeting energy needs.Talks on the health reforms, where the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats have little common ground, begin Monday.
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