Merkel fights to stop German state slipping away

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 9:55 AM

BERLIN -- Chancellor Angela Merkel is scrambling to stave off a hugely embarrassing defeat this weekend as a German state that her party has governed for nearly six decades votes in an election clouded by Japan's nuclear crisis.

But the chancellor's abrupt - many say credibility-sapping - about-turn on the future of Germany's own nuclear power plants may harm, not help, the situation. And the issue could help the anti-nuclear opposition Greens win their first-ever state governorship.

Sunday's election in Baden-Wuerttemberg is viewed as the most important of Germany's seven state ballots this year. The prosperous southwestern region is the only one where the same center-right coalition that governs Germany has to face state voters.

Its chances of re-election are "small and they have become smaller" amid the nuclear flap, said Nils Diederich, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University.

Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats look set to stay the biggest single party but risk being ejected from government by an opposition alliance in a region they have run since 1953. That would be a blow to the chancellor's prestige, though it's unlikely to pose short-term danger to her leadership of Europe's biggest economy.

Recognizing the electoral risks, Merkel swiftly softened her backing for nuclear energy after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami compromised Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant. She immediately suspended for three months a recent decision to keep Germany's plants open longer and ordered the country's seven oldest reactors shut down temporarily.

That may have undermined her own support while further emboldening the opposition which, when governing Germany, decided to shut all the country's 17 nuclear reactors by 2021.

"The abrupt turnaround certainly hasn't helped" Merkel's party, said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling agency. A majority of center-right voters "were for using nuclear power, and still are after Japan - and they will be confused by such an abrupt change of course."

Last fall, Merkel's government allowed the nuclear plants to stay open an average of 12 years longer to keep energy affordable as Germany develops renewable sources. The move was politically risky in Germany, given that nuclear energy has been unpopular since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster sent radiation drifting over the country.

"The policy we are seeing ... is absolutely not credible," Greens co-leader Claudia Roth said after Merkel's turnaround. "It cannot be that (the government) hands out electoral placebos, waits, tries to gain time, wants to sit it out, but doesn't really want to push forward a new policy."

Polls before the Japanese crisis showed a level race between the center-right coalition of Merkel's Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats, and the center-left Social Democrats and Greens.

But two new polls show the opposition alliance up to five points ahead; the Greens, traditionally a junior coalition partner, level with or ahead of the Social Democrats; and many respondents saying energy policy is an important issue.

"Saying no to nuclear power, fighting an uncontrollable technology, is part of the Green Party's birth certificate," Roth said, adding the party will "do everything to ensure that there is a first Green governor."

The Greens' Winfried Kretschmann is challenging incumbent Christian Democrat governor, Stefan Mappus - a divisive figure much criticized last fall for his support of a disputed railway project in the state capital, Stuttgart, which attracted large protests.

Mappus, a vocal advocate of nuclear power, has supported Merkel's about-turn. Two reactors in Baden-Wuerttemberg are offline and the governor now says one will stay shut for good.

Guellner said, whatever the outcome Sunday, "there is no noticeable danger to Ms. Merkel," who currently has no serious rivals in her party. The national coalition has a clear majority in parliament's lower house, which he said should last until its term ends in 2013.

Still, a defeat in Baden-Wuerttemberg would further reduce the government's weight in parliament's upper house, which represents Germany's 16 states and where it already lacks a majority. That means Merkel would have to put more effort into getting legislation passed.

Also voting Sunday is Rhineland-Palatinate state, where the Social Democrats appear set to remain in government, though they may need to form a coalition with the Greens.

Merkel has sought to dismiss suggestions that her nuclear U-turn, and her decision to keep conflict-cautious Germany out of the fighting in Libya, are due to electoral calculations.

"We don't make every global event into a local event, and we can really conduct the work of the federal government, which isn't elected to a four-year term for nothing," she said earlier this week.

But even the generally supportive Bild newspaper asked: "What price will the chancellor pay for her zigzag policy?"

© 2011 The Associated Press