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Greens stun Merkel in election coup

Germany's Green party is celebrating a stunning election victory in a state which chancellor Angela Merkel's party had governed for 58 years.

The Greens - one of whose main electoral platforms was their anti-nuclear stance - were poised to lead a centre-left alliance in the prosperous south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, complete with their first-ever state governor, after narrowly defeating the governing centre-right coalition.

The vote had been overshadowed by events in Japan, which prompted Ms Merkel to abruptly freeze recently drawn-up plans to extend the life of German nuclear plants and order the oldest plants shut down temporarily. That apparently disoriented some of her supporters and raised questions over her credibility.

"I still think the moratorium was right, but we didn't succeed in this short time in making clear that we meant it seriously and where we want to go," said Volker Bouffier, governor of Hesse state and a member of Ms Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats.

He acknowledged that it was "extremely painful" to lose Baden-Wuerttemberg, which the party had led since 1953. But he stressed that there was no appetite to punish the chancellor, saying "Angela Merkel leads this party and she will in future, too."

The party "stands united behind Angela Merkel," said its general secretary, Hermann Groehe. He stressed that the government will stick to its new course on nuclear power, and said he expects most of the seven old reactors to remain offline.

Ms Merkel currently has no serious rivals in her party, which still emerged as the biggest in Sunday's election and made small gains in a separate vote in neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate state.

Things look bleaker for her junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Their share of the vote was halved in both elections, ejecting them from government in Baden-Wuerttemberg and from the state legislature entirely in Rhineland-Palatinate.

Mr Niedermayer said the party would have to draw "personal consequences," but those were unlikely to include Mr Westerwelle's departure as party leader since "there is no one in the party who could challenge him" in the near future.

Polls showed that energy policy was, unusually, the top concern for voters - helping the Greens to spectacular gains and putting them just ahead of the Social Democrats, traditionally Germany's main centre-left party, in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

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