Fresh blow to Merkel coalition as parties lose support in German state vote
By Paul Carrel and Joseph Nasr BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition allies in Berlin both haemorrhaged support in a regional election in the western state of Hesse on Sunday, dealing a fresh blow to the fragile national government. Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) came home first but polled just 28 percent of the vote, an exit poll for broadcaster ARD showed.
By Paul Carrel and Joseph Nasr
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition allies in Berlin both haemorrhaged support in a regional election in the western state of Hesse on Sunday, dealing a fresh blow to the fragile national government.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) came home first but polled just 28 percent of the vote, an exit poll for broadcaster ARD showed. That marked a huge drop from the 38.3 percent the CDU won at the last Hesse election, in 2013.
"We are in pain because of the losses but we also learnt that it is worth it to fight," a smiling Volker Bouffier, the incumbent CDU state premier in Hesse and a Merkel ally, told supporters.
"The message to the parties ruling in Berlin is: People want fewer disputes and more focus on the important issues," he said.
The CDU's poor result in Hesse, after its sister party in the state of Bavaria, the CSU, suffered its worst result there since 1950 two weeks ago, may turbo-charge a debate about who succeeds Merkel and when. She has been chancellor for 13 years.
Merkel's weakness at home may limit her capacity to lead in the European Union at a time when the bloc is dealing with Brexit, a budget crisis in Italy and the prospect of populist parties making gains at European parliament elections next May.
The SPD fared even worse, winning just 20 percent of the vote in Hesse, down from 30.7 percent in 2013 and its worst result in the western state since 1946. The party just managed to beat the Greens, who placed third with 19.5 percent.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Hesse regional assembly for the first time with 12 percent of the vote, the ARD exit poll showed. The result means the anti-immigration party, which entered the federal parliament for the first time last year, is now also represented in all 16 German regional assemblies.
The result suggests the CDU and Greens may be able to continue a ruling coalition at the state level in Hesse, but the outcome is likely to increase tensions in Merkel's ruling 'grand coalition' at the national level in Berlin.
SPD Secretary General Lars Klingbeil told broadcaster ZDF: "This is a bad result for us, I can't put it any differently."
Merkel's fourth and probably final government has already come close to collapsing twice, and the weak SPD performance in Hesse will almost certainly reignite a debate in the party about whether it should pull out of the coalition.
A growing number of SPD members feel their centre-left party is tarnished by its alliance with Merkel and would be better off rebuilding in opposition - a scenario SPD leader Andreas Nahles has resisted.
Merkel's conservatives formed their loveless national partnership with the SPD in March only after the collapse of talks on a three-way coalition of the conservatives, Greens and pro-business FDP.
The ARD exit poll showed only 13 percent of CDU voters believed Merkel had helped the party in Hesse, down from 70 percent at the last state election in 2013.
The CDU holds its annual congress in December, when Merkel will seek re-election as party chairwoman. She is likely to be reappointed but a weak show of support for her would undermine her authority and accelerate the succession debate.
(Reporting by Paul Carrel; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Peter Graff)
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