Thursday, September 3, 2009
By Sarah Marsh and Noah Barkin
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a double blow on Thursday as a senior party ally in east Germany resigned his post and a new poll showed support for her conservatives at a three-month low weeks before an election.
Merkel has held a double-digit poll lead over the rival Social Democrats (SPD) for months and looked on track to win a second term on September 27 and seal the center-right coalition that eluded her four years ago.
But her party suffered big losses in two German regional elections on Sunday and nervousness in her conservative camp is rising as the federal vote approaches.
The poll from Emnid for private television station N24 was the first to fully take into account the results of the regional votes and showed support for Merkel's conservatives dipping to 34 percent, their lowest level since early June.
It also showed her conservative bloc -- the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) -- short of the backing it needs to form a governing majority with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP).
Merkel wants to partner with the FDP after the federal vote to push through tax relief and extend the lifespan of Germany's nuclear plants. But the new poll suggests another awkward "grand coalition" with the SPD could result.
"I am quite sure Merkel will be re-elected but I'm a lot more cautious about whether she'll be able to get her preferred coalition with the FDP," said Frank Decker, a political scientist at Bonn University.
FATAL SKI CRASH
As a consequence of the decline in support for her party in the eastern state of Thuringia at the weekend, state premier and longtime Merkel ally Dieter Althaus resigned on Thursday.
Althaus, who ruled in Thuringia for a decade, saw his popularity dip after he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for crashing into and killing a 41-year-old woman on a ski slope in Austria on New Year's day.
He also caused an uproar weeks before the state election by suggesting that federal subsidies for eastern regions that date back to German reunification in 1990 should be pared back.
"This is the result of the dramatic losses from last Sunday," said SPD leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Merkel's challenger in the federal vote.
Althaus' departure could allow the CDU to hold onto power in Thuringia by forming a "grand coalition" with the SPD -- an option regional SPD leaders had said they would only consider if the conservative stepped aside.
"The Althaus resignation actually improves the chances of Merkel's party to hold onto power in Thuringia, so it shouldn't be seen as overly negative," said Decker.
The other option in the state is a leftist grouping of the SPD, Greens and far-left "Linke," or Left party.
Thursday's poll showed Merkel's conservatives on 34 percent, eight points ahead of the SPD. Together with the FDP they would have 48 percent, matching the combined scores of the SPD, Greens and Left.