- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2011

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged Monday to press ahead with a review of nuclear power’s future in Germany after her coalition suffered a “very painful” defeat in a weekend state election dominated by Japan’s nuclear crisis.

Despite the embarrassment of losing a region her conservative Christian Democratic Union had governed since 1958, Mrs. Merkel downplayed its significance for her national government and said she had no plans to reshuffle her Cabinet.

The anti-nuclear opposition Greens, meanwhile, celebrated winning their first-ever state governorship after a center-left alliance snatched the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg on Sunday from Mrs. Merkel‘s center-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats.

“It was a very painful day for the CDU in Baden-Wuerttemberg, but also for the whole Christian Democratic Union,” Mrs. Merkel said.

Events in Japan were “one hurdle too many for us in the end,” said Stefan Mappus, the minister-president, or governor, of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

The Japan nuclear crisis prompted Mrs. Merkel to abruptly freeze for three months recently drawn-up plans to extend the lifetimes of Germany’s nuclear plants, and she ordered the oldest plants shut down temporarily pending safety checks.

That apparently disoriented some of her own supporters and raised questions over her credibility from opponents — which Mrs. Merkel dismissed on Monday, saying her position had wide support.

“A major party like the CDU … is well advised to draw new conclusions from new events,” she told reporters. “Most of us, of course, advocate the peaceful use of nuclear energy. I was one of them, but for me Japan is a far-reaching event.”

“We will implement every word of what we said before the election,” she added. “The time before the moratorium won’t be the same as the time after the moratorium.”

The CDU’s general secretary, Hermann Groehe, said he expects most of the seven now-disconnected old reactors — out of a total of 17 in Germany — to remain offline. He echoed other senior party members in rallying around the chancellor, telling ARD television that the party “stands united behind Angela Merkel.”

Mrs. Merkel may have some breathing space now, as none of the remaining three states holding elections this year currently has a governor from her party.

Besides, she has no serious rivals in her party, which still emerged as the biggest in Baden-Wuerttemberg and made small gains in a separate vote in neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate.

“Ms. Merkel is certainly tarnished in the short term now,” said Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin’s Free University. But he said that with federal elections more than two years away, it is far too early to speculate about any long-term damage.

Things look bleaker for her junior coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose supporters already were irked by its failure to deliver loudly pledged tax cuts.

Their share of the vote was halved in both of Sunday’s elections — ejecting them from government in Baden-Wuerttemberg and from the state legislature entirely in Rhineland-Palatinate.

While the nuclear crisis was the “all-deciding” issue Sunday, “it certainly wouldn’t have hit the FDP so hard in the campaigns if we had been in better shape overall,” Mr. Westerwelle said. “We will now have to consider how to get back on the road to success.”

The nuclear issue helped the Greens to spectacular gains Sunday and put them just ahead of the Social Democrats, traditionally Germany’s main center-left party, in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

“This means that a different, fairer and ecological politics has opportunities in this country,” co-leader Claudia Roth told ARD. “To have a Green governor now in this heartland of the auto industry and toolmaking is really a good result.”

Whether it can be repeated elsewhere is another question. The Greens long have been strong in Baden-Wuerttemberg and made a smart choice of candidate in the likely new governor.

Ex-teacher Winfried Kretschmann, 62, “is conservative in terms of values, a Catholic and so, also electable for center-right voters in Baden-Wuerttemberg,” Mr. Niedermayer said.

The nuclear issue gave the party an extra push, and “I would say that the Greens are somewhat overvalued in terms of their results in these elections,” he added.

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