The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens took control of Germany's most populous state on Wednesday with the election of a minority government in North Rhine-Wesphalia that spells further trouble for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The state -- Germany's most-populous, with some 18 million people -- had been ruled since 2005 by a center-right coalition of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats headed by former Governor Jürgen Rüttgers, but it lost its majority in a regional election on May 9 and failed to build a workable coalition after weeks of negotiations with other parties.
Regional SPD leader Hannelore Kraft, a 49-year-old former business consultant, couldn't muster an absolute majority of her own either but decided to form a minority government with her preferred partner, the Greens. It took two rounds of voting in the state assembly on Wednesday but she won the required simple majority in the second round with 90 deputies voting for her, 80 against and 11 abstaining.
Kraft's coalition will govern with one seat short of an absolute majority, which means it will need the cooperation of the hardline Left Party or conservative rebels to pass legislation.
A Blow to Merkel
Wednesday's vote has deprived Merkel's center-right alliance in Berlin of a majority in the Bundesrat, the upper legislative chamber in which Germany's 16 states are represented, and will make it harder for her to get some legislation through.
The defeat of the CDU in the North Rhine-Westphalia election was a sign of growing public disenchantment with Merkel's government, which has been riven by in-fighting and suffered a series of setbacks since she won re-election last September.
Wednesday's parliamentary vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to the industrial Ruhr region and the cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf, has fuelled speculation that the center-left may try to form a minority government at the national level, tolerated by the Left Party, after the next general election in 2013.
SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel declined to rule out the option. In an interview published in Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday, he said: "Such minority governments which work well together are better than governments that have a numerical majority but can't agree on anything. The best example of that is the current government."
However, Gabriel's statements drew fire from all other parties including the Greens. Renate Künast, the co-leader of the Greens in the Bundestag , Germany's federal parliament, dismissed the idea. "The heat must have gotten to him," she said. No federal government has ever started without a majority and Germans are fearful of such unstable governments.
A Boost for the SPD and Greens
The change of power in NRW has boosted the fortunes of the SPD and Greens, who governed Germany from 1998-2005 under Gerhard Schröder. Opinion polls show support for the center left is recovering. A poll by the Forsa institute for Stern magazine published on Wednesday showed support for Merkel's coalition at 35 percent, down 13 points from the September election, and five points behind the SPD and Greens.
Merkel criticized Kraft this week for forming a minority government. "She kept stressing during the campaign that a state like North Rhine-Westphalia needs a stable government. Now she wants to start her work with a massive breach of promise," Merkel told the Rheinische Post newspaper on Wednesday. "You can't trust a government like that."
cro -- with wire reports
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