BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday dismissed the idea that her Christian Democrats’ (CDU) defeat in a regional election had made her already tricky job of forming a three-way national coalition even harder.
It was sufficiently hard enough anyway, she said.
Still reeling from their worst national result since 1949 in September’s national election, Merkel’s conservatives slumped to 33.6 percent in the northern state of Lower Saxony, their poorest showing in the rich agricultural province in nearly six decades.
“I don’t see the Lower Saxony election result as weakening us in this (coalition) task,” Merkel said, adding that regional issues had played a big role in the campaign there.
The Social Democrats (SPD) won the vote in Lower Saxony - home to carmaker Volkswagen, which is enmeshed in a diesel emissions scandal - with 36.9 percent, despite lagging far behind the conservatives when campaigning began in August. Education was one of the key campaign topics.
Three weeks after her poor national showing, Merkel is about to begin what look set to be thorny coalition discussions with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens on forming a “Jamaica” alliance - so named because the parties’ colours correspond with those of the Jamaican flag.
Merkel said her conservative bloc was heading into the talks knowing it was the strongest of the three groups, while acknowledging negotiations would be challenging.
“We’ll have sufficient conflicts anyway. No one is under any illusions about that,” Merkel said.
Policy areas over which the three parties are expected to clash include migration, climate and the euro zone.
Greens co-leader Simone Peter said the talks would be tough due to the parties’ vastly diverging programmes, adding: “We must now pull ourselves together and see if coalition negotiations are possible or not.”
The conservatives will meet the FDP and Greens separately on Wednesday and then hold three-way discussions on Friday.
Merkel said she expected the exploratory talks - an initial stage during which parties decide whether to go ahead with full-blown coalition negotiations - to last several weeks because the “Jamaica” alliance, untested at the national level, was “an extraordinary political constellation”.
Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU) - the CDU’s Bavarian sister party - said the time before Christmas needed to be used to form a stable government but his colleague Alexander Dobrindt was sceptical: “Whether it succeeds, whether a government is formed, is yet to be seen,” he said.
Carsten Nickel, deputy research director at Teneo Intelligence, said the weak CDU result would particularly worry the CSU, which faces a regional election next year.
“The CSU will fear that Lower Saxony demonstrates that the popular backlash against Merkel’s choices in the 2015 migration crisis is not yet over,” he said, referring to her decision to operate an open-borders policy that allowed more than a million migrants to enter Germany.
After the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) took almost a million voters from the conservative bloc in September’s national election, the sister conservative parties put a long-running internal dispute to bed by agreeing to limit numbers of migrants coming to Germany.
Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Emma Thomasson; Writing by Michelle Martin; editing by Jeremy Gaunt