Merkel, Sarkozy Punished by Voters Questioning Their Leadership

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy suffered setbacks in state and local elections that risk undermining the remainder of their terms leading Europe’s two largest economies.

Merkel’s coalition dropped votes in an eastern German region yesterday as support for the anti-nuclear Greens surged to a record, underscoring the challenge she faces in state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg in six days. Sarkozy’s party trailed the opposition Socialists in the first round of French local council elections.

Both leaders are struggling for voter support as the two allies split over military intervention in Libya and seek to lock in a strengthened system to stem Europe’s debt crisis at a March 24-25 summit in Brussels. Two days later, Merkel faces elections in two states including Baden-Wuerttemberg, where her Christian Democratic Union is defending a nearly six-decade hold on power, and the French finish voting in the last ballot before next year’s presidential race.

Merkel “panicked” in the Japanese nuclear crisis by temporarily halting the extension of nuclear power she pushed through against protests in Germany, said Daniel Gros, head of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies. “That doesn’t project the image of someone who’s in command.”

Voters in Saxony-Anhalt, the second of seven regional ballots in Germany this year, gave Merkel’s CDU 32.5 percent support, compared with 36.2 percent it won at the last vote in 2006, according to preliminary official results. The Greens won 7.1 percent, double the 2006 tally. The Free Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partner, failed to clear the 5 percent threshold for retaining seats.

Election Bellwether

As the biggest party, the CDU may opt to continue its local coalition with the Social Democrats, the main opposition party nationally, which took 21.5 percent. Even so, the decline in support may be a bellwether for Baden-Wuerttemberg, said Hans- Juergen Hoffmann, head of the Psephos polling company.

Germany’s refusal to join airstrikes on Libya reflected “wavering and indecision” by Merkel, along with the “mixed signals” on nuclear power, Hoffmann said by phone. Japan’s nuclear catastrophe has stirred German angst about nuclear energy with full force and we’ll very likely see the Greens score from it in all this month’s elections.”

Polls indicate a neck-and-neck race between the Christian Democrat-led state coalition and the opposition Social Democrats and Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg, home to companies such as Porsche AG and SAP AG. Neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate state, governed by Social Democrat Kurt Beck, also votes on March 27.

Socialists Lead

In France, the Socialist Party won 25.1 percent of the seats in play in the general councils, which oversee the regions known as departments, the Interior Ministry said. Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement won 17.1 percent and Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front had 15.3 percent. One- third of the departmental assemblies are up for election.

Dissatisfaction with Sarkozy rose to the highest level since his election almost four years ago in an Ipsos institute poll published March 14. Sixty-eight percent of respondents disapproved of Sarkozy’s leadership, 5 percentage points more than in February, the survey for Le Point magazine said. His approval rating dropped three points to 31 percent.

Unemployment of almost 10 percent and government policies on immigration and Islam prompted a “sanction vote” against Sarkozy, Pascal Perrineau, an analysts at the Paris-based Cevipof political studies institute, told France Info radio.

As his party urges UMP supporters to turn out for the second round of voting on March 27, Sarkozy may be falling victim to his failures to follow through on domestic policies, Gros said in a phone interview.

“Sarkozy really has power as president, and he promised to do many things but he didn’t,” he said. “He tried 10,000 different things on the domestic front and each time he pushed a little bit, then gave up.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Tony Czuczka in Berlin at aczuczka@bloomberg.net; Helene Fouquet in Paris at hfouquet1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.