Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday blamed Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster for the crushing defeat inflicted on her ruling Christian Democrats by the Greens in key state elections at the weekend – but ruled out changes to her coalition in response to her party's humiliation.
The conservative CDU party was ousted from power in the prosperous south-western state of Baden-Württemberg for the first time in 58 years on Sunday. They were trounced by an alliance of Social Democrats and Greens, who will appoint Germany's first Green state prime minister this week.
The sweeping gains made by the Greens in state elections in the south-west and in the Rhine-Palatinate reflected a national trend and put the party firmly on course to rival the Social Democrats as the country's second mainstream political party. "Now we really have a chance to show what we can do as a main party of government," said Cem Özdemir, the Green party leader.
Yesterday Ms Merkel attributed the doubling in Green support to the nuclear disaster in Japan: "It is very clear that this was caused by the debate about the catastrophe at the reactors in Fukushima," she said. She conceded that the Christian Democrats' defeat was "a very painful day for the whole party". More than 250,000 people took part in anti-nuclear protests across Germany at the weekend.
However, Ms Merkel said she had no plans to reshuffle her cabinet or make any other changes to her coalition of conservatives and liberal Free Democrats. Instead she pledged to stick to her planned moratorium on nuclear power, under which seven of Germany's 17 reactors have been temporarily shut down prior to a switch to renewable energy.
Ms Merkel's moratorium was a quick response to Fukushima, announced only days before the Baden-Württemberg election. Previously her party had been committed to extending the life of reactors. Some polls report that 70 per cent of voters believed the move was designed to improve her party's chances in the election.
Political observers said that the Chancellor was able to play down the severity of the defeat as there were currently no conservative politicians who were in a position to challenge her. Her only possible rival, ex-defence minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, was forced to resign in early March after he was found to have plagiarised his doctorate.
But Ms Merkel's coalition has been criticised in recent weeks for its nuclear U-turn, its UN abstention over Libya and what voters see as its failure to come to grips with EU financing.
Opinion polls before Sunday's state elections showed that Ms Merkel's coalition would lose to an alliance of Social Democrats and Greens if a general election was held now.
"People no longer know what the coalition stands for" complained Josef Schlarmann, of Germany's conservative business association.
"Its style is governed only by pragmatism and tactics," he added.