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New Political Alliances Raise Tensions in Merkel's Government

Tensions have increased in Germany's ruling coalition led by Chancellor Merkel after two state votes failed to give traditional alliances a majority, forcing the country's two biggest parties to seek new partners.

SPD and CDU flag in front of German parliament

Germany's current grand coalition is neither party's idea of a perfect partnership

Sniping between Germany's Christian Democrats (CDU) led by Chancellor Angela Merkel and its junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), worsened on Monday, Feb. 25, after Merkel's party lost sole control in state elections in Hamburg, and the SPD warmed up to the idea of cooperating with a so-far taboo partner and new political constellations seem likely to shake up German politics.

"The grand coalition will continue, but relations will get nastier," Gerd Langguth, a political scientist at Bonn University told Reuters news agency.

The CDU lost their overall majority in Hamburg after taking 42.7 percent of the vote, while the Social Democrats increased their share to 34.1 percent from 30.5 percent -- albeit by less than it hoped.

Merkel hands over a bunch of flowers to the Christian Democratic top candidate Ole von Beust in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Feb. 25, 2008

Merkel congratulated von Beust on getting the most votes in Hamburg's election

The results mean that neither the conservatives nor the Social Democrats can form coalitions with their preferred political partners, the free-market liberal FDP and the Greens respectively.

The Hamburg vote is the second state election in a month to produce inconclusive results and raise the possibility of new partnerships amid growing disillusionment inside Merkel's ruling coalition, which has been at loggerheads in recent months.

There are fears that continued bickering would hinder much-needed tax and labor market reforms needed for bolstering Germany's economic recovery as it faces risks from a US slowdown and a strong euro.

A path-breaking new alliance

The CDU's preferred political partner, the free-market liberal FDP failed to get into parliament in the Hamburg election, leading to the CDU sounding out the Greens as coalition partners in the northern German port city.

A CDU-Greens coalition would be a first in a German state, although the two parties have combined successfully at the municipal level.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Hamburg

Hamburg election results left many wondering what will come next

There are several hurdles to such a power-sharing agreement. Incumbent Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust and his CDU are determined to dredge the Elbe River to increase the size of Europe's second-largest container port. They also want a new coal-fired power station.

The Greens are adamantly opposed to both points, and there are also major differences on education policy.

Merkel hits out at SPD flip-flopping

Amid the uncertainty in Hamburg, Merkel on Monday lashed out at the SPD for eyeing an agreement in the state of Hesse with the Left Party, a grouping of ex-Communists and disgruntled Social Democratic defectors.

The Left Party was the clear winner in the Hamburg election, winning a place in a fourth regional parliament in less than a year to establish itself as part of the political landscape in western Germany after long being a fixture only in the poorer, former communist east.

A banner reading Hier ist die Linke

The Left Party's popularity is growing in western Germany

"We are now present in legislatures in 10 of Germany's [16] states. We are on our way to becoming a party for all of Germany," Lothar Bisky, president of the Left Party, said on Monday.

Merkel has blamed the failure of the Social Democrats to retain their left-wing voter base, much of which has drifted further to the left cast votes for the ex-Communists, for the Left Party's recent successes. The Left Party remains anathema to all of Germany's mainstream parties because of its Communist past.

However, on Monday, the SPD's steering committee effectively backed leader Kurt Beck and gave the green light to rely on the Left Party's votes to get its candidate elected as premier in Hesse.

Merkel said the Social Democrats had forsaken their credibility by considering a tie-up with the Left Party after ruling out such a pact in the run-up to the election.

Beck giving a speech

Merkel accused Beck, above, of breaking election promises

"The Social Democrats have ... shown themselves in recent weeks not to be reliable," Merkel said in one of her strongest criticisms of her coalition partner, with whom she has shared an awkward relationship at the federal level since 2005.

"This is an experience that will stay in the minds of German people showing you cannot rely on what is said before an election," she added. "We must expect that this will repeat itself in various ways, and it will be left up to the voter to decide on this in 2009."

New constellations needed

However, many say there is a need for new political constellations in Germany where government since World War II has been dominated by the CDU and the SPD, with the FDP, and more recently the Greens, often playing the kingmaker.

"German democracy is in the creche of a five-party system, it will take time before it can all function properly," German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote on Monday, "Old resentments must be packed away and new alliances must be risked."

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