March 26, 2006

German state votes bolster Merkel coalition

BERLIN (Reuters) - German conservatives and Social
Democrats looked to have held on to power in three state
elections on Sunday, preserving a regional balance crucial for
the stability of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition in

Television exit polls showed Merkel's conservative
Christian Democrats (CDU) won the most votes in the wealthy
southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg and poorer eastern
region of Saxony-Anhalt.

The Social Democrats (SPD) were ahead in
Rhineland-Palatinate, the last big western state where they
rule, and may have enough support there to govern without their
Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners.

Merkel came into office in November as head of a Germany's
first "grand coalition" of the conservatives and center-left
SPD since the 1960s. A conservative sweep in the elections
might have upset the fragile balance of her federal

With the votes out of the way, pressure is expected to
build on Merkel to deliver reforms of the health insurance
system and labor market. Her first months in office have
focused largely on foreign policy, including repairing ties
with the United States.

With the two main parties reluctant to risk upsetting the
coalition in Berlin with partisan campaigns and many voters
weary after last year's tensely fought federal election, voter
turnout was unusually low.

Exit polls on German public television showed the CDU took
44 percent of the vote in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a state it has
held for over 50 years.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, popular SPD incumbent Kurt Beck
tightened his grip on power, taking 44.5 percent of the vote,
against 34 percent for the CDU and 8 percent for the FDP.

In Saxony Anhalt, the CDU remained top party, with 37
percent of the vote but as expected, premier Wolfgang Boehmer
will probably be forced to form a coalition with the SPD
instead of the FDP -- along the lines of Merkel's government in