Explosions at nuclear reactors half a world away have put German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a tight political spot _ increasing the risk that upcoming regional elections could undermine the authority of one of Europe's most important leaders.
The unfolding crisis in Japan has thrown a harsh spotlight on Merkel's nuclear policy. It has prompted her to make a hasty, if partial, about-turn on divisive plans to keep Germany's own plants open longer, and order the seven oldest reactors shut down temporarily.
Merkel declared the events in Japan "a turning point for the whole world," saying "we can't simply go back to business as usual."
Critics, however, argue that Merkel is mainly eyeing three state elections in the next two weeks _ particularly one in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which has been run by Merkel's party since 1952 but is now closely fought.
A defeat in that March 27 vote would be a huge embarrassment, though it likely wouldn't pose immediate danger to the national government.
Nuclear power has been unpopular in Germany since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster sent a radioactive cloud over much of Europe.
Germany plans no new plants and Merkel regularly describes nuclear energy as a "bridging technology" that can be phased out once renewable sources are better developed.
Recent polls showed a neck-and-neck race in Baden-Wuerttemberg between Merkel's center-right alliance and the center-left opposition, which has seized on events in Japan to assail the government's already-unpopular nuclear plans.
Merkel on Monday announced a three-month suspension of her government's decision in November to keep Germany's 17 nuclear plants open an average 12 extra years. A previous government decided a decade ago to shut them all by 2021.
On Tuesday, she went further, announcing that the seven oldest plants would be taken offline pending safety checks during the three-month moratorium.
Merkel argued that the fact that technologically advanced Japan couldn't prevent the nuclear accident after its devastating earthquake and tsunami _ both unlikely in Germany _ meant reviewing safety was a question of responsibility, "regardless of whether there is an election campaign in one state or another."
"After what happened at the weekend, you cannot seriously complain that ... responding to people's fears is an about-turn for electoral reasons," said Baden-Wuerttemberg governor Stefan Mappus, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats who was long known as a strong advocate of nuclear energy.
"I think that doing what we are doing is the only possibility," he said.
The opposition Social Democrats and Greens, who say nuclear energy is fundamentally unsafe and pushed through the shutdown plan when in government, have pressed Merkel to return to the original timetable.
"What Ms. Merkel is putting forward now is an electoral campaign trick," said Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the Social Democrats. "She is trying to take her candidate in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Stefan Mappus, out of the line of fire."
A poll of 909 people conducted Monday by the Infratest dimap institute underlined the issue's political riskiness. It found that 80 percent would like to see the nuclear plant extension scrapped altogether, and only 17 percent favor sticking to it.
Seventy percent believe a similarly serious accident could happen in Germany, the poll found. It gave a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 points.
Merkel's government lost its majority in parliament's upper house, which represents Germany's 16 states, in a regional election last year amid constant internal squabbling over policy.
It then found renewed purpose, pushing through sometimes controversial legislation that included the nuclear power plan. But recent weeks saw new setbacks.
Merkel's conservatives suffered a heavier-than-expected defeat in a regional election in Hamburg, which was prompted mostly by local factors but boosted Gabriel's Social Democrats.
Then, the popular defense minister resigned over allegations that he plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis, after clinging on for two weeks as the scandal gathered pace.
Polls suggested that didn't do Merkel's Christian Democrats major damage, but the nuclear crisis may have more destructive potential. Whether Merkel's policy turn will do her any favors is unclear.
Merkel "had to react _ she couldn't just let things happen without taking some kind of measures," said Matthias Dilling, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
But Eckhard Jesse, a politics professor from the Technical University in Chemnitz, argued that Merkel's party is now handicapped both by Germany's agitation over events in Japan and by the sudden nuclear about-turn _ which he said "won't be viewed as credible."
The first of the three elections comes this Sunday in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, where a local left-right "grand coalition" of Merkel's party with the Social Democrats appears to have a decent chance of surviving. The center-left opposition already looked likely to hold western Rhineland-Palatinate, which votes a week later.
Losing Baden-Wuerttemberg would be a major symbolic blow and would further weaken the government's position in parliament's upper house, which has to approve much legislation.
But it is unlikely to threaten Merkel herself, who doesn't have to face a national election until late 2013 and has a long history of dealing well with setbacks.