German Chancellor Angela Merkel was counting the cost yesterday of an historic drubbing for her conservative party by voters in Germany’s most populous state, in the countdown to next year’s national polls.
With about 16 months to go until she seeks a third term in office, Merkel must weigh up how to ensure a national victory for her Christian Democrats (CDU) as well as see through her eurozone crisis-fighting policy.
A snap vote in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) State, Germany’s most populous, with 18 million people, handed her CDU party its worst ever result in the state, with just over 26 percent, according to preliminary results.
The main opposition Social Democrats (SPD) took 39 percent in NRW, home to the Ruhr industrial heartland, and looks set to again form a state coalition government with the ecologist Greens, although, this time, with a majority.
A senior CDU official denied the party’s heavy losses in NRW would impact its national policy.
Support for Merkel’s drive for austerity and balanced budgets is “independent of this painful result from this regional parliamentary election,” CDU General Secretary Hermann Groehe said, according to the German DPA news agency.
The NRW vote does not directly affect Merkel’s national coalition and surveys have consistently indicated strong national support among German voters for her austerity drive in Europe and for her party.
However, the NRW defeat may bolster the opposition in its bid to force Merkel to soften her austerity policy and is a further setback after voters punished governments in fellow eurozone nations France and Greece that had toed the line for German-imposed budgetary belt-tightening.
And it came two days ahead of a highly anticipated meeting in Berlin between Merkel and French president-elect Francois Hollande, who beat her center-right ally on Europe, French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Socialist Hollande campaigned on a pledge to renegotiate the eurozone’s fiscal pact, agreed in March, which binds member states to austerity measures and which Merkel says is essential to underpin the continent’s eventual recovery.
The SPD has echoed calls by Hollande to place more emphasis on growth in the fiscal pact and Merkel, who needs a two-thirds majority in parliament to ratify the fiscal pact, will therefore require opposition support.
Der Spiegel news weekly said the SPD now faces a dilemma.
“If it rejects the fiscal pact and the austerity policy, it is offering Merkel a nice little campaign issue ... If it agrees with Merkel once again out of political responsibility, there is no clear distinguishing from the chancellor,” it commented online.