By David Stamp
BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives appeared set to keep control in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, election projections showed on Sunday, but face a much tougher credibility test next week.
Saxony-Anhalt marked the first of three provincial polls this weekend and next, and Merkel still risks suffering a major setback in the much bigger Baden-Wuerttemberg state on March 27, despite a nuclear policy U-turn and military opt-out in Libya.
The ARD television projection based on exit polls showed support for Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) slipping 3.5 percentage points to 32.7 percent. But that was modest compared with an electoral thrashing the CDU suffered in Hamburg last month, when its share of the vote plunged over 20 points.
German election projections tend to be reliable and this one suggests that the CDU is likely to renew its grand coalition with the Social Democrats. They were projected to come third with 21.5 percent behind the Left party led by Wulf Gallert, a former member of the east German communist party.
Regional elections count because the state parliaments send representatives to the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, and results particularly in the larger states can boost or weaken the authority of national leaders.
The big winners proportionately were the anti-nuclear Greens, who are usually weak in a state with a large chemicals industry. The projection showed their share of the vote virtually doubling from the last elections in 2006 to 7.0 percent following Japan's nuclear crisis.
That puts them over the five percent hurdle for entering the state parliament. "We have a chance that in Baden-Wuerttemberg ... the first Green state premier will be elected," national party leader Cem Oezdemir told ZDF television.
A BITTER DEFEAT
By contrast the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the junior partner in Merkel's federal coalition, appeared on the way out of the Saxony-Anhalt parliament. Their vote tumbled to 3.9 percent, according to the projection.
"Today (we've suffered) a bitter defeat," said the FDP's national leader Guido Westerwelle, who as Foreign Minister has come under fire for Berlin's refusal to support its NATO allies in a U.N. resolution authorizing military action in Libya.
CDU and Social Democrat (SPD) candidates barely criticized each other during the campaign and appear set to renew their coalition. But the Left party will try to woo the SPD.
"The SPD must decide whether they take their program seriously. That's only possible with the Left party," Left party national co-leader Klaus Ernst told ZDF television.
The far-right NPD party narrowly failed to enter the state parliament with 4.7 percent, the projection showed.
In the past week Merkel has taken two major policy decisions which should, on the face of it, prove popular with voters.
First she suspended her unpopular nuclear policy and ordered the closure of seven aging reactors, responding to the risk of a meltdown at Japan's Fukushima plant.
Then Germany abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote and Merkel declared its forces would take no direct part in military strikes on Libya. That should have pleased German voters who are usually hostile to foreign military adventures.
But in wealthy Baden-Wuerttemberg, the CDU risks losing for the first time in over 60 years as the Greens strengthen. A poll published by Focus magazine on Sunday showed the Greens at 25 percent, up five percentage points in the past week alone.
That puts combined support for the Greens and their natural coalition partner, the Social Democrats, ahead of the CDU and Free Democrats who rule together in both Baden-Wuerttemberg and nationally, the Emnid institute poll showed.
(Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin, Thomas Seythal, Sabine Ehrhardt and Michael Nienaber; Editing by Jon Boyle)