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Germany

Poll Success Builds Pressure On Merkel to Push Reforms

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's embryonic government emerged stronger from weekend state elections and faced pressure Monday to begin tackling the reforms required in Europe's biggest economy.

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Now the accolades are out of the way, Merkel says she's going to roll up her sleeves

Merkel's Christian Democrats captured decisive wins to remain in power in two states while the Social Democrats, partners in the ruling coalition in Berlin, managed a stunning absolute majority in the third state to vote.

The rare "Super Sunday" of elections -- with about one-fifth of the national electorate called to the polls -- gave Merkel's four-month-old government a clear vote of confidence.

"I see the outcome as an affirmation of what the grand coalition has accomplished until now and encouragement for the steps ahead," Merkel told reporters at her party headquarters on Monday. "We will put issues on the agenda. Tough working weeks lie ahead of us."

Observers from across the political spectrum said it was now time after the coalition's extended political honeymoon for it to face up to daunting problems including the ailing health care system, the 12-percent jobless rate and the overhaul of the creaking federal system.

"Everybody feels like a winner," political analyst Peter Lösche told rolling news channel N24. "Now they can get on with the business of governing."

Bildgalerie Minister Ulla Schmidt Gesundheit

Health Minister Ulla Schmidt faces a tough time with her reforms

Merkel presented a long list of policy initiatives for the "second stage" of her term focusing on reform of the federal system, family policy, health care, government red tape, energy policy, the labor market and corporate taxes.

The chancellor was due to meet Health Minister Ulla Schmidt later on Monday to prepare cross-party talks scheduled for Wednesday on health-care reform, according to government sources. Both coalition parties have pledged to narrow their differences on health care before parliament's two-month summer recess, which begins on July 7.

Press demand action, reserve judgement on Merkel's credentials

Commenting on Merkel’s "phased" chancellorship; the center-left Berliner Zeitung said the first stage had been dominated by confidence-building between the coalition parties but that the government could no longer drag its feet on the domestic agenda.

"Voters have shown that they are serious about the grand coalition. But also that they expect something of it. The clear outcome of the poll is an order to begin in earnest with the work at hand," it said.

Koalitionsverhandlungen - Merkel und Müntefering

Merkel and Müntefering: "You hum it, I'll play it"

In Germany’s neighbor, the Vienna-based Die Presse said that Merkel was facing her last chance to finally get to grips with urgently needed reforms. So far the coalition's performance, it says, has all the "soporific dynamism of a jazz bar session after midnight, with Angela Merkel softly stroking the drums with a little brush and (her SPD deputy) Franz Müntefering plucking leisurely at the bass".

Die Presse added that the coalition parties, says the paper, will have to "step up their tempo considerably" as Germany's honeymoon with the new chancellor may only last a few more months. "The credit she accumulated recently with her feel-good governing style and her faultless round of the world's red carpets could be used up very quickly," it warned.

The Frankfurter Rundschau warned that now the state elections were over, the coalition has "lost its only remaining excuse" for not tackling controversial issues. "It is no longer enough to make a good impression at home and abroad - action is needed now," the paper insisted.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung called Merkel's coalition a "complex mobile" which "starts to tremble with every draught, swings up and down if there is a wind and gets tangled up in a storm." While Merkel has surprised people home and abroad with her unexpected popularity and respect "she has done so not through her actions, but through her failure to act ... she has only been a half chancellor," it concluded.

Both sides of coalition relieved at election results

Der designierte SPD-Vorsitzende Matthias Platzeck

Merkel was pleased Platzeck's SPD didn't cause any ructions

However, despite the fact that the elections seemed to open possible floodgates of criticism, both governing parties in the coalition -- traditional rivals -- said the shared triumphs helped secure the balance of power in the "grand coalition" in Berlin. Merkel had feared a debacle for the Social Democrats could destabilize the alliance.

"I am pleased as the chairman of the German Social Democrats that I am able to welcome election victories in state polls," Matthias Platzeck said. He was referring to a string of state poll defeats for the Social Democrats which prompted Merkel's predecessor chancellor Gerhard Schröder to call for new elections which set the wheels in motion for his ouster.

In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, the prosperous home of auto giants DaimlerChrysler and Porsche, the conservatives captured 44.2 percent of the vote, according to provisional official figures.

Landtagswahl Zwei Frauen bei der Stimmabgabe in einem Wahllokal in Wittenberg, Sachsen-Anhalt 2006 Wahlurne

The results were favorable; the turnout wasn't

The Christian Democrats have ruled the state for half a century and will probably continue their coalition with the liberal Free Democrats.

Voters in the depressed eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt gave the Christian Democrats 36.2 percent of the vote, according to official figures, and put the Social Democrats in third place behind the Left Party which won 24.1 percent.

The conservatives' partners in the state, the Free Democrats, failed to muster a score that would allow them to continue the alliance, increasing the likelihood of a link-up with the Social Democrats, who garnered about 21.4 percent.

Meanwhile the Social Democrats scored a historic victory in wine-producing Rhineland-Palatinate thanks to the popularity of Premier Kurt Beck, one of their leading figures at the national level.

Healthy results but poor voter turnout

They drew 45.6 percent of the vote, enough for an absolute majority and far ahead of the Christian Democrats, who suffered a crushing defeat with under 33 percent of the vote.

A "grand coalition" in Saxony-Anhalt and a pure Social Democrat government in Rhineland-Palatinate would broaden the Merkel coalition's majority in the Bundesrat upper house, meaning the Free Democrats have little power to block legislation.

Total electoral turnout in the three states, however, was only about 60 percent, a historic low.

The leader of the opposition Greens party Claudia Roth said the grand coalition was leading to "depoliticization" -- turning voters off the political process.

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