5 Min Read
* Merkel plans rapid nuclear exit by 2022
* Her coalition struggles as Greens make gains
* Business, conservatives question strategy
By Stephen Brown
BERLIN, May 30 (Reuters) - Angela Merkel's bid to outflank the opposition by closing all nuclear plants by 2022 smacks of opportunism to many Germans but could ease an alliance with the anti-nuclear Greens that may be her best bet to stay in power.
The German chancellor has, in nine months, gone from touting nuclear plants as a safe "bridge" to renewable energy and extending their lifespan to pushing a nuclear exit strategy that rivals the ambitions of the Social Democrats and Greens.
Merkel had her atomic epiphany after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March, announcing a moratorium on nuclear power and launching an urgent overhaul of German energy policy, resulting in the exit strategy announced on Monday.
Her change of heart, however genuine it may be, coincides with a string of disastrous election results for her Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Free Democrat (FDP) allies that have been partly blamed on her unpopular pro-nuclear policy so far.
With the FDP losing popularity almost as fast as the Greens gain it, and the Greens unseating the CDU in their heartland of Baden-Wuerttemberg in March as well as outpolling them for the first time in Germany in Bremen this month, Merkel has upgraded the nuclear moratorium to a rush for the exit.
With opinion polls showing categorically that most Germans dislike nuclear energy, and election results demonstrating that March's nuclear moratorium alone was not enough to stem the vote losses for the CDU, Merkel probably had no choice.
"I don't think she will take many votes from the Greens, who have promoted this issue for decades," said Carsten Koschmieder, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
"But with the FDP so weak and Merkel looking for other allies, who might be the Greens, the atomic issue was the main obstacle that needed to be removed," he said.
The 56-year-old chancellor herself has played down talk of a future tie-up with the environmentalist party, telling members of her coalition last week to stop "daydreaming" of a such an alliance and put their own house in order.
This comes against a backdrop of criticism in the CDU and the media of a lack of firm leadership, with CDU leaders like Peter Hauk from Baden-Wuerttemberg saying: "People don't know what we stand for... We are losing voters everywhere."
Die Zeit weekly lamented the CDU's "lack of direction" and said Merkel's leadership looked "confused" and "opportunistic" while the Financial Times Deutschland cited regional leaders saying the CDU should follow its ideas, not opinion polls.
But with the FDP notching up four bad election results this year and looking challenged in opinion polls to keep their seats in the Bundestag (lower house), after winning 14.6 percent in the federal 2009 vote, Merkel may be daydreaming herself.
Now boasting their first state premiership in the former CDU stronghold of Baden-Wuerttemberg and predicting gains in a Berlin city-state election in September, the Greens look a better bet than the FDP.
But while some in Merkel's cabinet are believed to want such an alliance privately, the scramble for anti-nuclear votes worries some right-wingers who think the CDU should present ideas of its own instead of imitating the Greens and Social Democrats.
"By adopting green issues we have only made the Greens stronger," said Josef Schlarmann, a conservative CDU leader who represents small business. "Imitation won't help us succeed."
The head of Germany's main industry lobby, Hans-Peter Keitel of the BDI, wrote to business leaders on Monday warning that the speedy nuclear exit would push up power prices, make emissions goals more difficult and force more reliance on coal and gas.
"If (power supply) can no longer be guaranteed, it will weaken Germany as an industrial nation," he said. "Politicians must guarantee the stability of the grid and the system during this transformation in energy policy." (Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Jonathan Lynn)