Merkel admits being hurt by party's narrow election defeat

Tue, Jan 22, 2013, 00:00

A double disaster landed in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lap yesterday when a regional poll defeat hobbled her coalition and threw open September’s general election.

In a rare admission, the German leader admitted she’d been “hurt” by Sunday’s narrow state election defeat in Lower Saxony. Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) topped the poll but, after hours of deadlock, saw its ruling alliance with the Free Democrats (FDP) finish one seat behind the opposition Social Democrat (SPD)-Green Party camp.

That result in Hanover – winning the election but losing power – is an ominous sign for the German leader’s own identical coalition in Berlin.

“We’re all sad today ... I’m not going to pretend,” said Dr Merkel to a press conference. “I’m not going to pretend, defeat is of course that much more painful when you’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster.” After taking back Hanover, a jubilant SPD said yesterday they now had their sights on Berlin.

“The federal election is wide open and we are going to fight,” said SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel. Though narrow, their Sunday win in Lower Saxony gives SPD and Greens majority control of the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat.

They wasted no time yesterday in promising not only to block all Merkel legislation coming their way, but to launch initiatives before general election day in September to boost welfare payments and push through a statutory minimum wage.

“Merkel is a queen without a country,” said SPD general secretary Andrea Nahles.

Meanwhile the SPD’s Peer Steinbrück, who is hoping to unseat Dr Merkel in September, promised to get his act together yesterday after admitting he had cost the party support on Sunday after a series of campaign gaffes.

The record 10 per cent result for the FDP provided a stay of execution for the party’s luckless leader, Philip Rösler.

“The party is back on track for success,” he said.

That remains to be seen, with analysts attributing the surge in support to CDU assistance. Confident it would poll about 40 per cent, CDU leaders called on supporters to give votes to the FDP to help their coalition partner over the 5 per cent parliamentary hurdle. More than 100,000 CDU voters followed the call, leaving the larger party with just 36 per cent.

Internal pressure

It remains to be seen if the FDP’s Lower Saxon surge will be repeated at the federal election. Facing internal party pressure, Mr Rösler agreed to hand over the reins of the 2013 campaign to the more experienced Rainer Brüderle.

Like most state polls, Sunday’s Lower Saxony poll was won and lost on issues such as the state economy and education. But the latest in a series of state election defeats for the CDU shows the leader can no longer assume her two-thirds popularity in polls will automatically transfer into votes for her party.

With her CDU fighting over the same voters ahead of the federal election, Dr Merkel’s ability to secure a third term will depend on her ability to woo centrist voters away from the SPD.

SPD leader Stephan Weil announced plans for coalition talks yesterday with the Greens. He is likely to recruit one familiar face to his cabinet: Doris Schröder-Köpf, fourth wife of ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder.