The Guardian
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Merkel admits ‘bitter defeat’ in polls


ADMITTING a “bitter defeat” in a state election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday abandoned hopes of pushing through tax cuts for Europe’s biggest economy and said her government would concentrate on keeping the country’s debt down.

Merkel’s centre-right coalition lost control of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, in an election Sunday that also erased its majority in the upper house of parliament – making the country harder to run.

“There’s no talking around it – we suffered a bitter defeat,” Merkel told reporters.

The defeat followed a stumbling start for Merkel’s new national coalition government, which took power in October. It has squabbled constantly over the wisdom of cutting taxes to stimulate the economy and faced sharp criticism for its handling of the Greek debt crisis.

“Many arguments were avoidable,” Merkel said of her government’s first few months.

“The … coalition in Berlin must now set its priorities clearly,” she said. “That means, from my point of view, firstly that tax cuts cannot be implemented for the foreseeable future – discussions about the euro, about (loan) guarantees and a lot of other things show us that.”

“Consolidating the budget will become the priority,” she said.

Merkel said tax cuts likely wouldn’t be possible for at least the next two years.

Early and big tax cuts were a pet project of her junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats. However, they are opposed by opposition parties, which will now be able to block legislation in the upper house.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the opposition Social Democrats told n-tv television yesterday that Merkel should learn from the defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia. He said Merkel’s government would no longer be able to simply push through its plans.

The upper house represents states and must approve much major legislation.

Sunday’s vote was the first electoral test for Merkel since she and her new national government took office.

Similarly, millions of Filipinos seeking a clean start after a decade of corruption-tainted politics voted in yesterday’s elections despite scattered violence and glitches with vote-counting machines being used for the first time.

Sen. Benigno Aquino III – whose father was assassinated while opposing a dictatorship and whose late mother led the “people power” revolt that restored freedoms – commanded a large lead in the presidential race, according to the last pre-election polls.

About 50 million registered voters out of a population of 90 million voted to fill nearly 18,000 posts from the presidency to municipal councils. In a country where celebrities commonly seek office, the jewel-studded former first lady Imelda Marcos is running for a House seat, as is boxing star Manny Pacquiao in his second congressional bid.

But even Aquino was unable to immediately cast his ballot, because a vote-counting machine broke down in his precinct. The Elections Commission extended voting for another hour to make up for delays.

Computer problems and campaign-related violence, which has killed more than 30 people in the past three months, were the main concerns in elections that officials hope will set a new standard for the Philippines’ fragile democracy.

For the first time, optical scanning machines will count votes in 76,000 precincts. A software glitch discovered a week ago nearly derailed the vote, but was fixed at the last minute. Still, some machines malfunctioned in the tropical humidity, including in Aquino’s hometown of Tarlac, north of Manila.

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