BERLIN The humiliation of Angela Merkel's allies in Berlin state elections offers her short-term relief in highlighting the risks of an explicitly 'eurosceptic' platform; but the vote dramatizes a shift in Germany's political landscape unlikely to benefit the chancellor.
With the Social Democrats (SPD) scoring a convincing third-term win in the capital and likely to form a new coalition with the fast-growing Greens, the result reflects nationwide opinion polls and looks like a foretaste of federal elections in 2013.
The center-left did not do as well as expected, the Greens had the wind taken out of their sails and the pride of Merkel's own party was barely salvaged by small gains. The eccentric Pirate Party came from nowhere to teach all the established parties a lesson.
"The Berlin election confirms what we'd already seen in other state elections this year -- that the political landscape is changing," said pollster Klaus-Peter Schoeppner of the EMNID Institute.
"Germans are seeing so many problems heaped upon them, on the financial and economic fronts, on the energy and foreign policy fronts, that they have lost their trust in politicians and in political parties, and no longer regard them as competent to handle these issues," said Schoeppner.
A year of seven regional elections has seen the authority of Merkel's conservatives challenged in their wealthy southwestern stronghold, the FDP shrink from record highs in 2009's federal elections to insignificance, and the impressive rise of the Greens, now present in all 16 German state assemblies.
The steady decline of the former communist Left -- who shot themselves in the foot by waxing nostalgic about the Berlin Wall -- has been confirmed, with Berlin's SPD Mayor Klaus Wowereit ruling out renewing a 10-year alliance with them in the capital.
The shifting landscape is also unsettling the SPD, whose progress to power in 2013 may be hijacked by internal rivalry as the party's left championing the charismatic Wowereit while the right backs former finance minister Peer Steinbrueck.
While some analysts, such as Michael Naumann, editor of the political magazine Cicero, doubt Wowereit has wide enough appeal across Germany, especially in the conservative south, to compete for the chancellorship, the mayor is a proven election winner.
Germans now look for candidates who "embody their values" in a more personal sense, which in a political arena long bereft of charisma could favor figures like Wowereit, or "issue" parties such as the Pirates and the Greens, analysts said.
But even the astonishing success of the Pirate Party, self-confessed nerds campaigning on an eclectic platform of free Internet downloads, data protection, free underground rides and legalizing drugs, is not easily projected onto the national political scene.
"I don't see their success being repeated elsewhere. They speak to young people, not yet established in their careers, and there is a large proportion of such voters in Berlin," said Schoeppner.
DOWN, BUT NOT OUT
While the FDP are the clear losers this year, ranking behind even the widely-reviled neo-Nazis in the depressed northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, for example, they are not going to disappear overnight or depart abruptly from government.
The FDP remains a strong party in parliament, with 93 of the 622 seats in the Bundestag (lower house) thanks to a record 14.6 percent result in 2009 when Merkel ditched the SPD after four years of a Grand Coalition.
"The instability of the FDP is going to be a problem for Merkel. They are trying to raise their profile at the cost of the coalition," said politician scientist Gero Neugebauer at Berlin's Free University.
"But new elections would be a disaster for the FDP, so they won't want that."
The FDP leader behind 2009's success, Guido Westerwelle, had to step down in April under pressure from terrible state results -- and his 38-year-old successor Philipp Roesler already looks eminently vulnerable after yet more disastrous local elections.
He attempted last week to boost the FDP's ratings by suggesting it should no longer be taboo to discuss an "orderly" sovereign default in Greece -- which fueled worry about the euro zone crisis and deeply irritated Merkel.
While some polls last week suggested this could boost the FDP's support by a few points, and that there would be support among Germans for a eurosceptic party, even some politicians inside the party thought the euro strategy had backfired.
"I believe it was a mistake to profile our pro-European FDP as a eurosceptic-style party," said Cornelia Pieper, deputy foreign minister and FDP deputy chairwoman.
Some analysts believe the FDP's debacle in Berlin could serve as a deterrent for others who might be tempted to draw on popular discontent over bailouts for Greece.
"The fact that this otherwise popular theme did not pay off for the FDP in the Berlin regional election can be seen as good news for Merkel's pro-European line," said Holger Schmieding at Berenberg bank.
While the europhile SPD and Greens' support will mean Merkel gets the European Financial Stability Facility approved on September 29, she needs a "yes" from her own benches in the Bundestag to avoid a confidence vote that could even end her government.
Merkel also needs to contain increasing skepticism about more Greek bailouts from the Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party to her own conservatives, though their bark is often worse than their bite when it comes to key votes.
One scenario is that Merkel keeps her coalition together until the next election challenge -- a Schleswig-Hostein state contest in a year's time -- and, if the FDP looks even more unviable, limps on alone to 2013 with a minority government.
"Merkel can probably no longer count on a majority with the FDP in 2013. But it's complicated to organize early elections in Germany; I think they will stay in power for the full term," said Gerd Langguth, politics professor at Bonn University.
Merkel's government has limited scope to throw a lifeline to the FDP with tax cuts -- its 2009 campaign platform -- and pro-euro Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is unlikely to sacrifice his deficit-reduction goals for Roesler.
"The FDP is on a slippery slope. It has become dispensable for a lot of voters and will have trouble getting back into the Bundestag," said Neugebauer.