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Merkel government punished in key regional election

Thomas Kienzle, AFP | Supporters of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) react as first exit polls were announced on public television during the state elections in Hesse (Hessen) at the state parliament in Wiesbaden, western Germany on October 28, 2018.

Exit polls suggest that Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and their coalition allies in Berlin both haemorrhaged support in a regional election in the western state of Hesse on Sunday.

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Weakened by a strong backlash against immigration after allowing over a million people into Germany since 2015, Merkel's fourth government has staggered from one crisis to the next since being formed earlier this year.

According to an exit poll by public broadcaster ARD in Hesse state, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) shed more than 10 points compared with 2013 for a 27.4-percent score, holding on to a weakened first place.

Meanwhile junior federal coalition partners the Social Democrats (SPD) tumbled more than 11 points to 19.6, roughly tied for second place with the ecologist Greens, who almost doubled their result to 19.5 percent.

'Painful' loss of votes

Both the SPD and Merkel's CSU sister party had also seen grave losses in Bavaria's regional poll earlier this month.

>> Read more: Merkel’s Bavarian allies lose absolute majority in regional election

"It's very painful for the CDU that we've lost many votes," party general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer -- widely seen as Merkel's anointed successor -- acknowledged at a Berlin press conference.

The result is another milestone in the long decline of the big-tent "people's parties" CDU and SPD that have dominated German politics for decades.

Electoral momentum is on the side of newer parties, more tightly focused on a narrow range of issues.

Propelled by the backlash to Merkel's migration policy into the German federal parliament last year, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) is now also represented in all 16 state legislatures, after Hessian voters handed it a 13-percent score and fourth place.

The protest party has eaten into both the CDU and SPD vote by railing against migrants and refugees as well as uncaring Berlin elites.

The chancellor is weakened after three years of battling over her open borders decision.

While migration and asylum policy has been sharply tightened since, it has not been enough to stop desertions to the AfD and disquiet in the CDU's own ranks.

The Greens meanwhile are attracting voters who favour welcoming refugees, worry about climate change or are fed up with the indulgence shown to car companies during a years-long scandal over harmful emissions from diesel vehicles.

The veteran leader's fourth government did not get off to a good start after its formation earlier this year, with two rows over relatively minor points bringing it to the brink of collapse in the summer.

‘Unacceptable’ government

While the internal battles in her government have mostly been sparked between the CDU and the more conservative CSU, the Social Democrats have ended up footing a costlier bill in lost votes.

The SPD has suffered a string of regional defeats and last year's worst national election score since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949.

"The state of the government is unacceptable," party general secretary Andrea Nahles said on Sunday.

Berlin must find a "reasonable way of working", Nahles said, arguing that the dismal picture the two parties were painting in the capital had "significantly" contributed to the regional election blow.

The CDU must now agree to a "clear, binding roadmap for politics in the interest of the citizens," she demanded, ahead of a previously-agreed "half-time review" next September.

"Then we'll be able to check whether this government is still the right place for us," Nahles said -- implying the SPD may quit if Merkel does not offer new concessions.

Short of an end to the coalition, internal frustration in the CDU could yet bubble up in a weak score for Merkel when she stands for re-election as party leader in December -- or even a surprise victory for a challenger.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

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