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Merkel wins second term in office

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent

BERLIN, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- German voters handed Chancellor Angela Merkel a government with her favorite coalition partner, the pro-market Free Democratic Party.

Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union did not perform well in Sunday's general elections here in Germany, but the 33.8 percent it got -- together with its Bavarian sister party CSU -- was nevertheless enough to secure Merkel a second term at the helm of Europe's largest economy.

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"I want to be the chancellor of all Germans so that we are all better off, especially in the midst of a crisis," Merkel said Sunday evening. "We have a lot of problems to tackle in this country."

On Monday, Merkel announced she would form a government with the opposition Free Democratic Party, a pro-business group led by Guido Westerwelle, within four weeks. The FDP got its best result since World War II, when it snatched 14.6 percent of the ballot, up from 9.8 percent in the previous election.

"We want to govern Germany because we want a fairer tax regime, equal access to good education and that civil rights are honored again," a beaming Westerwelle said Sunday.

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That spells the end for the so-called grand coalition, an unlikely team-up between Merkel's conservatives and the Social Democratic Party, or SPD, which has governed Germany since 2005. The SPD was Sunday's biggest loser: Support for Germany's eldest party plummeted from 34.2 percent to just 23 percent -- the worst result for the party since 1949.

"The voters have decided and the result is a bitter day for German Social Democracy," a stern-looking German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD's top candidate for chancellor, told his party colleagues.

The new government coalition is expected to lower taxes in a bid to heave Germany out of its worst recession in decades. But some voters fear that social tensions will rise if the FDP decides to push through market-radical policies.

"The CDU and the FDP mainly represent the upper class. I am worried that the gap between rich and poor will widen," Julia Jungmann, a high school teacher from Berlin who voted for the SPD, told UPI in an interview. She added that she hopes for the SPD to regroup and lead "a strong opposition."

Experts say the SPD will have to reinvent itself after the grand coalition and the disastrous election, and rumors surfaced on Monday that Franz Muentefering, the longtime party leader, would resign to make room for younger personnel.

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Germany's second-strongest opposition group is the far-left Left Party, an alliance of former communists and disgruntled Social Democrats that got an impressive 11.9 percent of the ballot.

Led by charismatic speakers Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gisy, the Left Party is Germany's most notorious opposition group, with the major parties accusing them of populism and ambitions to bring back socialism a la East Germany. Because of the party's extremist tendencies, some states have it monitored by a domestic intelligence agency. But in eastern Germany and now also in the western part of the country, the Left Party is becoming increasingly popular, with Sunday's election being the breakthrough for the party on a national level.

"We are the party that will focus on bringing back the social welfare state," Lafontaine said Sunday. The Green Party, scoring 10.7 percent, completes the left-leaning three-party opposition.

John Hulsman, a political analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said Lafontaine, the 65-year-old former chancellor candidate, is one of the election's big winners.

"He can remain a demagogue in the opposition and influence the German Left," Hulsman said.

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