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Germany

Merkel Under Pressure as Conservatives Lose Popularity

Faced with sliding opinion poll ratings, members of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union have urged their leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, to show stronger leadership six months ahead of a general election.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a conference of her conservative party

The worsening economy has made Merkel's job tougher in an election year

A string of opinion polls released last week showed Germany's conservative bloc, made up of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union or CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), losing popular support.

The conservative parties lost ground to their "grand coalition" partner at the national level, the Social Democrats (SPD), as the economic downturn takes its toll.

A Forsa opinion poll saw the CDU/CSU dropping to 33 percent. Another for the ARD television channel showed it slipped two points to 32 percent.

The polls showed the Social Democrats lagging behind the CDU/CSU at between 24-27 percent, but the gap is closing. For the first time, the ARD poll showed Merkel trailing Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD candidate for chancellor.

The CDU/CSU hopes to win enough votes in the Sept. 27 elections to ditch the SPD and form a new coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) -- up one point at 17 percent. But that outcome now looks less certain.

With national elections due in autumn, the CDU/CSU-Social Democrat ruling alliance has been hamstrung by what voters perceive as a lack of political will to push through major policy changes.

This has prompted calls from some leading members of the CDU for the party to stop seeking to accommodate the SPD and to sharpen its conservative profile.

"It has to be made clear the chapter of the grand coalition has drawn to a close and a new one is opening in which the CDU has to state clearly what it stands for," said Guenter Oettinger, premier of the south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Merkel needs to pay more attention to the interests of CDU's business sector and conservative wing, Oettinger said. He warned that "no one will take her seriously as a chancellor of compromise."

A distinct profile needed

Wolfgang Bosbach, the deputy chairman of the CDU's parliamentary group, said the party needed to re-position itself.

Steinmeier and Merkel during a session in the Bundestag

Steinmeier' SPD and Merkel's CDU are in a marriage of convenience

"We should never allow ourselves to be viewed as a variant of the SPD," he told a Cologne newspaper. "We have to be a clear, political alternative."

Merkel's fortunes and those of her party have waned since the recession took hold in Germany at the end of 2008, and she has been accused of indecision for her slow response to dealing with the crisis.

Beware of your friends

Logo of the CDU/CSU parliament group

The CDU's Bavarian sister party CSU is turning up the heat

Merkel's position has been further undermined by the CDU's Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), whose chairman Horst Seehofer has adopted a combative style since assuming the party leadership in October last year.

Seehofer this week supported SPD moves for higher curbs on executive pay. He also called for changes to parts of the recent health reform program, one of the key reforms of the coalition.

Peter Struck, the SPD's parliamentary leader accused the CSU of being "a factor of instability" in the ruling coalition and said "its lack of trust" was making it difficult for Merkel to assert herself.

Business troubles

Merkel recently came under fire from conservatives within her own party -- as well as business groups -- for agreeing to legislation that could result in the nationalization of troubled mortgage lender Hypo Real Estate.

Opel flag

Many conservatives are opposed to bailing out carmaker Opel

Dieter Hundt, president of the German employer's federation, voiced "outrage" at the move.

"There is no need to do this even as a last resort ... any type of nationalisation or expropriation is out of place and a burden on Germany's position as an investment location," Hundt said. "Such a serious breaking of this taboo must be avoided."

The chancellor faces another test as struggling carmaker Opel appeals to the government for 3.3 billion euros ($4.1 billion) in state aid to help it remain afloat.

"We will provide assistance if the benefits for the people outweigh the losses," Merkel said.

But Deputy Economics Minister Dagmar Woehrl, a member of the CSU, said it was "highly questionable and unlikely" the government would plough huge sums of taxpayers' money into a company that plans to close plants and lay off thousands of workers.

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