28 March 2011: Merkel punished for opportunism

Yesterday’s election in the German region Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany’s richest regions, saw Angela Merkel’s CDU lose power after over half a century in office and there can be little doubt that the campaign was heavily influenced by the Japanese nuclear issue. Merkel had performed one ‘nuclear u-turn’ last year when she said that Germany’s nuclear stations would be allowed to remain open until the end of their design lives. Then, after the Japanese tsunami, she performed another by ordering some to close immediately and putting the policy change on hold for at least three months.

The CDU still won the largest share of the vote – 39%. However, this was down from 44% five years ago. The CDU’s coalition partner in the federal government, the liberal FDP, got only just over 5%. The Green Party won 24% and their Social Democrat allies got 23%. So there will be a Green/SDP coalition. This is the first time that the Greens have won a regional election in Germany, where the regional governments wield considerable power – akin to US states but, in some respects, even more powerful as they make up the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat.

Nuclear power was not the only issue in the campaign, of course. German voters are unhappy about Merkel’s line on the Euro bail-outs, and both Greens and SDP took a more anti-EU line. Also, the CDU had supported in new railway station in Stuttgart, which was not popular locally.

However, the Green Party victory will widely and correctly be seen as a sign of Germany’s opposition to nuclear power. This opposition is not a surprise – the anti-nuclear feeling in Germany has been more widespread and stronger than in the US or UK, and obviously stronger than in France. The most worrying aspect of the German debate is that there is also growing opposition to carbon capture and storage (CCS).  In 2008, Germany got less than 10% of its total energy from renewables (see Germany – climate and energy statistics), so other low carbon energy sources are needed until it can be 100% renewable.

Merkel called both nuclear and CCS ‘bridge technologies’ for precisely this reason. She was right to do so, but now she is being punished electorally for reacting in a knee-jerk way to the Japanese events. The lesson that politicians should learn from this is not that nuclear power is wrong or politically disastrous, but that obvious opportunism is not a good way to win public support.

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