September 2, 2019 / 12:56 PM / 2 months ago

Narrow escapes in state votes earn big German parties a few months' relief

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners turned their sights with some relief on new hurdles months down the road after withstanding a far-right battering in two eastern regional elections on Sunday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel shakes hands with Saxony Prime Minister and top CDU candidate Michael Kretschmer next to Leader of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and the top CDU candidate from Brandenburg, Ingo Senftleben during a news conference after the regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, in Berlin, Germany, September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the SPD clung on as the largest parties in Saxony and Brandenburg respectively but bled support to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which came second in both states.

The AfD harnessed voter anger over refugees and the planned closure of coal mines in the formerly communist east, casting itself as the heir of the demonstrators who brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades ago.

“Both CDU and SPD suffered significant losses in both states, but ultimately got away with a black eye,” said Kevin Koerner, senior economist at Deutsche Bank Research.

“For the grand coalition in Berlin, the result of the two state elections probably means a breather.”

The setbacks for the CDU and SPD were not as great as feared and they took the reprieve as a cue to deliver tangible results before an autumn mid-term review of the national coalition and the SPD’s party congress in December.

In both Brandenburg and Saxony, the vote was so fragmented that three-way coalitions appear the only route to a majority - a reminder to the CDU and SPD that, however awkward their national alliance, a new election would only complicate matters. Both resolved to double down and deliver results.

“We learn from yesterday that it’s not enough to complain about the AfD’s election results - we have to be on the ground, we have to deliver,” Manuela Schwesig, one of the SPD’s caretaker leaders, told reporters.

“That is now the job of the grand coalition in Berlin.”

SPD TURMOIL

The government’s immediate focus is to agree an ambitious climate package in September - a key policy given the popularity of the Greens, running second behind the conservatives in national polls - and on ways to support the economy, which is on the brink of recession.

Leaders from the ruling coalition parties are due to meet in Berlin on Monday evening to chart an immediate way ahead.

Beyond the autumn, the national coalition’s fate will depend on the SPD’s choice of a new leader, and then the outcome of its party conference in December.

After a disastrous performance in European elections in May, the party sank into turmoil, and many rank-and-file members want to quit an alliance that has supported Merkel for 10 of her 14 years in power and rebuild in opposition.

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That would most likely signal the end of the Merkel era - she has already given up the leadership of her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), and indicated that she will not seek a new term as chancellor - and a potentially awkward choice of leading candidate.

The leader of the SPD’s youth wing, Kevin Kuehnert, who campaigned against joining the grand coalition in 2017, said the Social Democrats “sometimes make ourselves smaller than we are” by governing in the coalition.

“The pressure to bolt from the government will continue to build, possibly coming to a head at the December party congress,” said Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the weekly Die Zeit. “If so, look forward to the end of the Merkel government and early elections.”

Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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