Merkel loses key supporter as Hamburg mayor resigns

Merkel loses key supporter as Hamburg mayor resigns

German Chancellor Angela Merkel lost another key regional supporter on Sunday, with the charismatic Christian Democratic (CDU) mayor of Hamburg, Ole von Beust, 55, announcing he would resign, dpa reported.

   He is the sixth CDU premier to leave the scene in 12 months, reducing the pool of experienced talent at the top of Germany's biggest party. In addition, the CDU's Horst Koehler shocked Merkel by suddenly resigning as president of Germany in May.

   Beust made his announcement just hours before suffering the defeat of his education policy in Hamburg's first-ever binding statewide referendum.

   More than 54 per cent of voters rejected his government's plans to alter the city's public-school system so that children spent six, instead of four years in primary school.

   Beust cryptically said: "The score on the referendum is the score on me," then added that he wanted to make way for a successor to have time to become established before the next polls in 2012 in the city- state.

Beust did not mention recent turmoil in the Merkel government, saying his departure was his own choice, effective August 25.

   "There's a time for everything," he told a televised news conference.

Beust said he had contacted Merkel, who was on a trip to Asia, to tell her of his resignation, and she had been "understanding."

   Merkel's centre-right party and its Bavarian CSU ally control 10 of Germany's 16 states. State premiers have recently been angered at federal orders to make deep cuts in state budgets at a time when polls show many Germans are sullen and worried about the future.

   Two of the retiring premiers, Roland Koch of Hesse, who is saying his farewells and moving into business, and Christian Wulff of Lower Saxony, who has moved up the largely ceremonial job of German president, had been bold rivals to Merkel.

   Beust, a liberal who has run Hamburg for nine years, took care not to ruffle the chancellor and worked well with political opponents, too. In a rare outburst last month, he urged Merkel to end deadlock in her government and kick out her critics.

   The party is expected to appoint Christoph Ahlhaus, 40, Hamburg's minister of the interior, as the next mayor, a post equivalent to premier.

The series of departures leaves Merkel, 56, as the dominant figure in her party, with the new premiers still learning the ropes.

   The CDU has dominated German politics for most of six decades.

   The Merkel party has seen its public support sag in recent years, forcing it into delicate coalitions with smaller parties, which in turn has led to criticism from its middle-class and religious supporters that the party's election planks are rarely implemented.

   Beust formed Germany's first state coalition between the CDU and the environmentalist Greens in 2008.

But he upset conservative voters by endorsing a Greens' plan to desegregate schools in the city, where bright, middle-class children have traditionally been separated from the pool of disadvantaged children, many of them immigrants, at age 10 after primary school.

Middle-class groups that normally support the CDU petitioned for a ballot measure to overturn the CDU-Greens educational reforms.

Beust said he was bitterly disappointed at the rebuff.

   State premierships are traditionally part of the learning curve in Germany to becoming chancellor.

   Other CDU heavyweights to leave the scene in the last 12 months were Dieter Althaus of Thuringia after a hung election, Guenther Oettinger of Baden-Wuerttemberg, who accepted a European Commission post, and Juergen Ruettgers of North Rhine-Westphalia, voted out at the polls.

   In Merkel's cabinet, only two CDU/CSU figures are widely seen as potential chancellors: Health Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Like Merkel, neither has been a premier.

   A poll published Sunday by the Allensbach Institute, which often advises the CDU, said 75 per cent of Germans currently thought their country was in a "worrying" position despite a recent boom in exports and a rush of new jobs as the economy recovers.

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