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German state polls put reform pressure on Merkel

Written by: Staff

BERLIN, Mar 26 (Reuters) Germans began voting in three regional elections today that are widely expected to shore up support for Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition but also herald new pressure for tricky reforms.

The elections, in the wealthy states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate and the poorer eastern region of Saxony-Anhalt, are the first since Merkel took office in November as head of a delicately balanced government of conservatives (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD).

The CDU prime ministers of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Saxony-Anhalt, Guenther Oettinger and Wolfgang Boehmer, and Rhineland-Palatinate SPD leader Kurt Beck all look set to be returned, a result that would lend stability to the coalition.

But many analysts said the elections would signal the end of Merkel's honeymoon period in office, in which she has made her mark on foreign policy but steered clear of divisive but necessary health care, tax and labour market reforms.

''Merkel will have no reason to delay the domestic reform debate any further,'' said Bank of America economist Holger Schmieding.

''The way in which she steers the reform debate in the next few months will be crucial for the success or failure of her chancellorship.'' Polls opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and are due to close at 6 p.m.

(1600 GMT), when preliminary results are also due.

Merkel was forced to tone down reform proposals after failing to win enough votes in national elections last September to be able to rule with her preferred partners, the Free Democrats.

Her hands have been partly tied since then by the need to placate the SPD, traditional rivals with whom she must now co-exist.

Reuters CH GC1211

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