Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives were ousted from power in Germany's richest state for the first time in 58 years last night, humiliated by the environmentalist Greens in a regional election whose outcome raised doubts about her political future.
Voters in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg replaced the Christian Democrats with a Green-led alliance with Social Democrats which secured a four seat majority in the state parliament.
The result, heavily influenced by the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, seemed almost certain to result in a Green party prime minister being elected to lead one of the country's 16 federal states for the first time.
The Green's leader, Winfied Kretschmann, 62, told jubilant supporters at his party's headquarters in Stuttgart: "We have won a historic victory. We are going to give a Green direction to politics. We will listen to voters' demands." Some 250,000 people took part in an anti-nuclear protest across Germany at the weekend.
Ms Merkel was conspicuously absent last night. Hermann Grohe, a senior Christian Democrat spokesman, tried to explain his party's humiliation: "The election was largely influenced by the tragic events at Fukushima," he said.
The Baden-Württemberg election was dominated by voters' concerns about nuclear power. But Ms Merkel's abrupt reaction to the events in Japan also caused conternation. After the scope of the problems at Fukushima became clear, the German government reversed its nuclear policy and announced that seven of the country's oldest reactors would be shut down.
Ms Merkel had previously ordered the life of Germany's 17 reactors to be extended. She said her policy switch had been motivated by the Fukushima incident claiming that it marked a "new dimension" to nuclear disaster. However, polls showed more than 70 per cent of voters believed her U-turn was prompted by her party's declining popularity – largely because of the nuclear issue – in Baden Württemberg.
For the conservatives to lose power in a state which they had controlled without interruption since 1953 marked a devastating blow to Ms Merkel's and her party's credibility. Der Spiegel magazine predicted before the poll that such a result would mean "the beginning of the end of Chancellor Merkel".
Her coalition of conservatives and liberal Free Democrats have come under criticism over the past fortnight for its allegedly panicky and untrustworthy nuclear policy and its decision to abstain at the UN Security Council over Libya. Joschka Fischer, a former Green foreign minister, said he was "ashamed" of Germany's stance at the UN.
In another important election in the western state of Rheinland-Pfalz, the Social Democrats and Greens looked set to form the next government, despite significant gains by Ms Merkel's conservatives.
* France's Socialist Party look set to convincingly win the country's departmental elections last night. With more than 80 per cent of votes counted last night, the left had 36 percent, double the ruling conservative UMP party's 18.6 percent.