BERLIN German conservative leaders called on their party to rally around Chancellor Angela Merkel Monday after her Christian Democrats (CDU) suffered their sixth regional electoral defeat this year.
The CDU and the Free Democrats (FDP), the junior coalition partners in national government, were pummelled in an election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Sunday. The CDU fell 5.7 percentage points to 23.1 percent while the FDP collapsed by 6.9 points to 2.7 percent.
The centre-right bloc has been plagued by dissent over its hesitant response to the euro zone crisis and divisions on tax policy, but the economy has been showing solid growth, making the latest drubbing at the ballot box all the more significant.
"The important thing now is that we clearly stand together behind the chancellor," said Volker Bouffier, state premier of Hesse and a deputy party leader to Merkel. He was referring in particular to a September 29 vote in parliament on euro zone bailout measures. Some coalition deputies have said they will vote "no."
"It is very important that we get a clear (own) majority on this," said Bouffier. Anywhere from a dozen to two dozen members of parliament could vote against the measures bolstering the euro zone rescue fund, according to coalition deputies.
The CDU's score was its worst in the state on the Baltic coast but it could still end up as junior coalition partners to the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany's poorest state.
DEFEAT FOR MERKEL
It was a personal defeat for Merkel. She campaigned heavily with nine appearances and her home constituency is in the state.
The SPD surged 5.5 percentage points to 35.7 percent. The SPD could continue the coalition with the CDU or switch to the Left, which won 18.4 percent, or the Greens, which won seats in the state for the first time with 8.4 percent, up 5.0 points.
But the FDP, an opposition party in the state, fell out of the assembly -- raising pressure on the FDP to sack unpopular Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. He was forced to give up the leadership of the FDP and the Vice Chancellor post in May.
Hermann Groehe, Merkel's deputy party leader, said Monday that local issues were to blame for the CDU's poor showing but he added worries about Greece and the euro played a role.
"Obviously the debate about Greece or about a looming or avoided bankruptcy in the United States concerns about the stability of the currency," Groehe told Deutschlandfunk radio. "But quite clearly local issues influenced voters yesterday."
Worries about the prolonged euro zone crisis cast a shadow over the campaign ahead of a crucial vote in the Berlin parliament on euro zone bailout reforms in late September
The defeat will raise nervousness among MPs in the Berlin parliament worried about their own job security. The coalition faces the difficult vote on the euro zone bailout on September 29 and there are fears not enough deputies will back Merkel -- which could trigger a government crisis.
"Every regional election defeat will cause Angela Merkel problems," said Everhard Holtmann, a political scientist at the University of Halle. "There is a lot of unease and uncertainty among the CDU's grassroots supporters over the defeats as well as some of her policy changes on things such as nuclear power and education system reforms."
The far-right NPD also won seats in the state assembly again with 6.0 percent after they won 7.3 percent in 2006.
(reporting by Erik Kirschbaum, editing by Matthew Jones)