German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a press conference at the Christian Democrats' headquarters in Berlin on March 28, 2011.
Credit: Odd Andersen

BERLIN, Germany — Explaining away her party’s demoralizing drubbing in a key state election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has invoked the political equivalent of chaos theory.

The earthquake, tsunami and partial nuclear meltdown in Japan have swept her conservative party from power in its traditional stronghold of Baden-Wurttemberg, 5,500 miles away.

Riding a wave of anti-nuclear anger are the environmentalist Greens, who are set to take power for the first time in a German state.

It is a seismic shift. Baden-Wurttemberg, in the country’s southwest, is wealthy, traditional and conservative — so conservative in fact that Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union had ruled continuously since 1953.

But that changed on Sunday night when the anti-nuclear Greens had won 24.2 percent of the vote, giving them enough to govern in coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party.

The election was widely seen as a referendum on Merkel and, in particular, her pro-nuclear policy. Commentators for most part agree that she will cling onto the leadership of her coalition for now — there is no clear alternative — but she will need to change course dramatically.

It has also left her with a serious credibility problem. Merkel earned widespread criticism last year for her decision to extend the lifetime of the nation’s 17 atomic plants — which were due to be phased out — by an average of 12 years.

But what really irked voters, according to political scientist Gero Neugebauer of the Free University of Berlin, was her unconvincing policy U-turn during the Fukushima crisis. In a move widely seen as blatant politicking ahead of the state elections, Merkel immediately closed seven of the older plants and announced a three-month review of nuclear power.

“They would have been better off to keep the direction they were going in,” Neugebauer said. “Instead they started swinging one way and another — now no nobody trusts them. They’re going to have to work to get back something of the credibility they have lost.”

Economy Minister Rainer Bruderle, of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, helped the perception along when he told a private meeting of business leaders the moratorium was a political ploy. The minutes of the meeting were leaked to a newspaper.

On Monday, Merkel assured voters she was committed to her policy reversal.

“The debate in connection with the Japanese nuclear plant of Fukushima was clearly what led to our defeat,” she said. “My view of atomic energy has changed since the events in Japan. I have learned a lesson from what happened in Japan."

The drubbing in Baden-Wurttemberg also slashes Merkel’s numbers in the federal upper house, where the states are represented, making it harder for her to pass legislation.

The debacle is the culmination of a downward slide that began virtually as soon as the coalition took office in September 2009. It has annoyed voters with its perceived lack of direction and persistent in-fighting.

There was an important local issue in Stuttgart in the controversial upgrade to the main train station. But atomic power was the lightning road, according to Neugebauer. Nuclear skepticism isn’t a left-wing position in Germany but a centrist one.

The backlash from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is also in full swing, with some conservative powerbrokers laying the blame on the chancellor.

“There is a massive loss of faith in the center-right parties,” Josef Schlarmann, president of the party’s business wing and a member of its national committee, told the online edition of Der Spiegel on Monday. “People don’t know anymore what this coalition government stands for.”

The ascendancy of the Greens — which has been reflected in national polls for six months, since Merkel announced her original nuclear extension — is likely to be repeated across the country, Neugebauer said.

The party has a pragmatic leadership — indeed it governed Germany in coalition with the Social Democratic Party between 1998 and 2005 until Merkel won power. Merkel might have to build bridges with the Greens in the hope of luring them into a coalition with her own party when she next faces the voters in 2013 — assuming she is still chancellor then.

With the new influence of the Greens, nuclear power has a dimmer future in Germany. Merkel, a political compromiser by instinct, may use the loss of power as a justification for shrugging off the nuclear lobbyists and the right wing of her party.

But she also needs to persuade voters that her party represents some core values — something that has been lacking, analysts say. It’s not the events in Japan, but how Merkel handled them.

“The coalition has thrown out so much ballast in the face of public anger that their MPs don’t recognize themselves,” said political commentator Stefan Dietrich of the conservative daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“In a situation like that, populist measures like closing old atomic plants or refusing to take part in a war in Libya won’t work. If Merkel’s government is being measured by this election, it’s not because of a nuclear accident in far-away Japan but because they’ve squandered their power.”

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