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Balance of power

March 28, 2011

Defeat in a key state election over the weekend represents a major setback for Chancellor Angela Merkel. She is now unable to sidestep the major political issue of the day. But, as Peter Stützle writes, all is not lost.


A few days before polling opened in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, one election official said he had experienced something he had never heard of before: Voters who had already cast their ballots via postal vote put in requests to change their preferences. This, of course, is not possible. But the story highlights the extent to which a single issue had influenced campaigning at the last minute: The now-raging debate over nuclear energy in Germany, which stemmed from the ongoing crisis in Japan.

Policy shift needed

As disastrous as the election result seems for Chancellor Angela Merkel, it also presents glimmer of hope. If she can manage a credible energy policy turnaround at the federal level - moving away from nuclear energy and towards renewables - she may be able to safely navigate the turbulence that engulfed election day in Baden-Württemberg. Even on election night, the government in Berlin was trying to put the ball into the opposition’s court. The Greens and the Social Democrats must now create the conditions for a greater use of renewable energies in the states where they now govern. This could include measures such as building hydro plants and new power lines.

Deutsche Welle's Peter Stützle
Deutsche Welle's Peter StützleImage: DW

Such policy finesse demonstrates the most significant meaning of Sunday’s elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Palatinate. It was, as Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel rightly noted, a referendum on nuclear energy. If anyone in government had hoped the planned safety checks on Germany’s nuclear plants would result in things staying as they are, they can now finally bury those hopes.

Impending CDU discussions

The change in energy policy won’t be readily accepted within the governing parties. Angela Merkel will now need to address a fierce debate within her own party. To her credit though, she has always been able to bring her Christian Democrats into line on other drastic policy changes, such as the recent suspension of military conscription. And the party currently lacks someone who could challenge her authority.

The same story holds within the CDU's federal coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). The potential successors to FDP leader Guido Westerwelle - considered by most to be party secretary-general Christian Lindner and Health Minister Philipp Rösler - are widely viewed as too young and inexperienced to lead the FDP mid-crisis. The other contender, old-hand Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle, currently has fears for his own head. He is the leader of the FDP in Rhineland-Palatinate, which in Sunday’s elections failed to secure the 5-percent share of the vote needed for representation in the state parliament. It was also Brüderle who was recently quoted as saying that recent government decisions on nuclear energy policy were only made with the state elections in mind.

And so the federal government run by Merkel and Westerwelle will persist, albeit under much harsher conditions.

Author: Peter Stützle /dfm
Editor: Rob Turner