Analysis: Merkel to blame for rout but leadership not at risk

By Stephen Brown and Brian Rohan

BERLIN (Reuters) – Angela Merkel will share the blame for her Christian Democrats’ election rout in the German conservative heartland on Sunday despite her government’s bid to portray itself as hapless victim of events in Japan and Libya.

Merkel handed the Greens victory in Baden-Wuerttemberg with her mishandling of the nuclear issue, likely resulting in the humiliation of the Greens installing their first state premier on CDU turf; but it is unlikely to cost the chancellor her job.

This is not for lack of criticism of the way Merkel or her main ally, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of the Free Democrats (FDP), have done their job or managed the campaign.

“This is a disaster for the CDU and there will be big discussions in the party,” said Thorsten Faas, a professor of politics at Mannheim University in Baden-Wuerttemberg, who sees a chance Westerwelle might have to quit the FDP leadership.

Days before the election, when it became crystal clear the CDU would lose control of a state it has governed since 1953 — relatively well, going by the strong economy and low crime and jobless rates — criticism of Merkel’s nuclear and foreign policy decisions frothed on German newspapers’ front pages.

Eminent conservatives balked at her decision to abstain in a U.N. vote on military action over Libya and warned against the dangers of what her former mentor Helmut Kohl said would be an “overhasty, solitary German exit from nuclear energy.”

Ex-CDU defense minister Volker Ruehe was quoted on the cover of the conservative Welt am Sonntag newspaper as saying that abstaining on Libya was a “serious mistake of historic dimensions.” CDU deputy whip Michael Fuchs said the German public had been perplexed.

“Our maneuvers in the last two weeks simply did not convince voters,” said Fuchs.

BAD CRISIS MANAGEMENT

Bad luck certainly may have contributed to the scale of the center-right government’s historic defeat.

“Events in Japan, war in Libya, the euro debate and many other things interfered,” said Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle of the FDP, which just hung on in Baden-Wuerttemberg but was ejected from Rhineland-Palatinate’s assembly in another vote on Sunday.

The day’s biggest loser, CDU premier of Baden-Wuerttemberg Stefan Mappus, said a blend of domestic and external events led to his defeat, starting with the giant “Stuttgart 21” railway project in the state capital that mobilized Greens-led protest.

Mappus gave a snapshot of a floundering German conservative government that recently lost its biggest star — Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who quit as defense minister over a plagiarism case — and appears increasingly out of touch with the public.

“You know what the key words are: Stuttgart 21, energy consensus, the resignation of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the terrible events in Japan and many others,” said Mappus.

But, however unforeseeable the circumstances, Merkel — who herself turned the vote into a referendum on her government last September in a stormy parliament debate on “Stuttgart 21” — has emerged with her reputation for crisis management in tatters.

On nuclear energy — where she first extended the life spans of German power plants late last year then, after the Japanese earthquake, shut down the seven oldest — Merkel is accused both of overreacting and of a clumsy and failed campaign ploy.

But her leadership is not immediately at risk thanks to the lack of viable alternatives, after the exit of the CDU’s most senior state premiers last year and, more recently, Guttenberg.

“She won’t have to worry abut a putsch. She doesn’t have to worry about any rivals,” Gero Neugebauer, a politics professor at the Free University in Berlin, told Reuters. “She can think long-term about how she can stay in power.”

“I don’t see any consequences for Merkel because there is no one in the party who could lead a putsch against her at the moment,” agreed Gerd Langguth at the University of Bonn.

Merkel can also count on some voters differentiating between local and federal politics, like Manuel Blochwitz, a 23-year-old telecommunications worker in Stuttgart who voted for the Greens on Sunday because of “Stuttgart 21” but is a Merkel fan.

“I don’t want a change of government before 2013 and I’m happy with Merkel,” he said. “There’s nobody to replace her. But I’m in favor of a new start here in Stuttgart, where only the CDU has been in power since Baden-Wuerttemberg was founded.”

(Additional reporting by Erik Kirschbaum and Christiaan Hetzner in Stuttgart; writing by Stephen Brown)

Analysis: Merkel to blame for rout but leadership not at risk