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German conservatives suffer historic defeat

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives have suffered a historic defeat in a state ballot after almost six decades in power there, preliminary results showed Sunday, in an election that amounted to a referendum on the party's stance on nuclear power.

The opposition anti-nuclear Greens doubled their voter share in Baden-Wuerttemberg state and seemed poised to win their first-ever state governorship, according to preliminary results released by the state electoral commission.

"We have secured what amounts to a historic electoral victory," the Greens' leader, Winfried Kretschmann, told party members in Stuttgart.

The Greens secured 24.2 percent of the vote, with the center-left Social Democrats down 2 percentage points at 23.1 percent. That secures them a narrow lead to form a coalition government with a combined 71 seats in the state legislature, the results showed.

Representatives of all parties said the elections were overshadowed by Japan's nuclear crisis, turning them into a popular vote on the country's future use of nuclear power -- which a majority of Germans oppose as they view it as inherently dangerous.

Conservative governor Stefan Mappus, who has long been an advocate of nuclear energy, conceded defeat and said his party's lead in the polls dwindled away in the wake of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear facility.

"Voters were touched by the terrible events in Japan. Those images still haunt people today," he said.

Mappus' Christian Democrats secured 39 percent of the vote or 60 seats in the legislature. Its coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, saw its voter share halved to 5.3 percent -- 7 seats.

The disaster in Japan triggered Merkel's government last week to order a temporary shutdown of seven of the country's older reactors, two of them in Baden-Wuerttemberg state, pending thorough safety investigations.

But the chancellor's abrupt about-face has raised doubts about her credibility in a country that remembers well the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine that spewed radiation across Europe.

A center-left government a decade ago penned a plan to abandon the technology for good by 2021, but Merkel's government last year amended it to extend the plants' lifetime by an average of 12 years.

The government has now put that plan on hold, and the opposition wants to abolish the use of nuclear power for good by 2020. Germany currently gets about a quarter of its energy from nuclear power, but plans to eventually replace it with renewable energies.

Merkel's party has held power in the region around Stuttgart -- home to some 11 million people -- since 1953 and the ballot was seen as the most important of Germany's seven state elections this year.

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