* Merkel allies crash out of another state assembly
* FDP heads for extinction in two more state votes
* CDU may have to team up with centre-left Germany-wide in
By Stephen Brown
BERLIN, March 26 German Chancellor Angela Merkel
may have no option but to revive her old alliance with the
centre-left opposition after federal elections in 2013, as her
current Free Democrat coalition partners face likely further
humiliation in regional polls this year.
Merkel may even end up happier in a marriage of convenience
with the Social Democrats than in what once seemed to be a love
match with the centre-right FDP, who were already banished to
the electoral wilderness in the state of Saarland on Sunday.
With the conservative chancellor hoping to win a third term
in 2013, Germany tried to draw conclusions for national politics
on Monday from the vote in tiny Saarland, an untypical state on
the French border which has a population of just 1 million.
Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) beat forecasts to secure
leadership of a "Grand Coalition" in Saarland with the
second-placed Social Democrats (SPD).
By contrast the FDP was ejected from the Saarland assembly
as it won just 1.2 percent of the vote, far below the 5 percent
threshold for winning representation at both the state and
federal level. The party's decline from dream partner for the
CDU - when it won a 14.6 percent in the last federal elections
in 2009 - to liability now appears to be complete.
In May the FDP, a low-tax party known as the Liberals, also
risks extinction in the assemblies of two much bigger states,
including North Rhine-Westphalia which is Germany's most
populous state with 18 million people.
Merkel herself would not write off the FDP, telling a news
conference there was "no comparison" between Saarland and the
central government, and no danger of early federal elections
before the expected vote in the autumn of 2013.
However, Merkel's lieutenants thought aloud about future
alliances. "It's typical of post-war German democracy that in
tough times the big parties are open to crossing party frontiers
and forming coalitions," said her chief whip, Peter Altmaier.
With support for the FDP also languishing well below the 5
percent threshold nationally, Merkel may have to repeat the
coalition with the SPD which she led from 2005-09.
If the Saarland coalition goes ahead as planned, the CDU and
SPD will share power in five of Germany's 16 federal states.
Merkel aides say her consensus-seeking style of leadership
made her more comfortable shacked up with the SPD in the
"marriage of convenience," than what initially seemed t o be a
"marriage of love" with the FDP.
DATES WITH DESTINY
But the SPD, which emerged somewhat battered from the last
federal Grand Coalition when its image suffered from playing
second fiddle to Merkel's CDU, may not relish the prospect.
The SPD has a major opportunity to improve its chances
against the CDU in the most important strategic of this year's
state elections, in North Rhine-Westphalia on May 13.
The SPD had a shaky grip on power in the state, a
centre-left stronghold with industrial smokestacks and big debt
problems, in a minority coalition with the Greens but called
snap elections after the FDP blocked the 2012 state budget.
Opinion polls suggest the SPD and Greens may return with a
majority, while the FDP may not reach the 5 percent threshold.
Disappointed at coming off second-best in Saarland, where
polls had put them neck-and-neck with the conservatives, the SPD
were painfully aware that the prospect of being junior partners
in coalition with the CDU does not mobilise centre-left voters.
SPD leaders are keen avoid the impression that a Grand
Coalition in the federal Bundestag is a foregone conclusion. SPD
Secretary General Andrea Nahles said the best bet was a
"Red-Green" alliance with the environmentalists as in North
Rhine-Westphalia - though this formula failed acrimoniously in
the state of Berlin last year.
"It's true that the prospect of a Grand Coalition does not
mobilise SPD voters," said Nahles, emphasising that the party
"should bet on 'Red-Green'" at state and national level.
But the view that a Grand Coalition is inevitable is fuelled
by the lack of difference between the CDU and SPD on major
policy areas, ranging from the euro currency to nuclear power.
This presents a major problem when it comes to campaigning,
political scientist Volker Kronenberg said. As in Saarland, if
the two major parties are heading for a coalition anyway, "it is
just a question of who edges ahead and gets to be premier".
"By next year we will know if you can translate this to the
federal level," he said.
In a sign of its desperation, the FDP has begun sniping at
what it portrays as the "Social Democratisation" of its current
partners in the CDU, trying to present itself as the only party
now offering truly liberal economic policies.
It will be an uphill battle for the Liberals: polls predict
the party will also be ejected from the assembly in
Schleswig-Holstein, meaning a party with a proud history of
power-sharing in post-war Germany would have been thrown out of
half of the 16 state assemblies. This could signal an
The two contests are talked about as "dates with destiny"
for the FDP, though Kronenberg said there is a slim chance this
could mobilise support "under the motto 'it's all or nothing'".
Another small party that in contrast with the FDP is very
much on the rise - the Pirates - has a different take on the
political differences between the CDU and SPD being erased.
"It no longer makes any sense to classify things as left- or
right-wing," said Sebastian Nerz, leader of the party which came
from nowhere to take 9 percent in Berlin's local assembly last
year, got 7.4 percent in Saarland and may well get into the
Bundestag in 2013.
The Greens and FDP are most vulnerable to having their votes
poached by the Pirates, but all the parties see them as a
threat, despite their lack of any clear political platform.
"My goal is to keep the Pirates out of the Bundestag," said
the SPD's Nahles. "They are political competition and are
causing a lot of trouble for parties in the centre ground."