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Luxembourg’s leader slips in snap elections

AFP-JIJI

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker says he will try to form a new government after his party took a clear lead in snap elections, but support for Europe’s longest-serving leader has slipped.

Official results from Sunday’s polls showed that his conservative Christian Social People’s Party (CSV) led the field with 33.7 percent of the vote, against 38 percent four years ago.

The CSV looked set to lose three of its 26 seats in the tiny country’s 60-member parliament, according to the official figures that were almost complete.

“We claim priority to form the next government,” Juncker said in a brief statement at the headquarters of the center-right party, which has won every election bar one since it was established in 1944.

“We are the largest party,” he said, calling their showing “impressive.”

The election in the European Union’s richest state per capita had been brought forward by seven months after the discovery of misconduct in the secret services, which the prime minister oversees.

Juncker’s former coalition with the Socialist Party splintered over misdemeanors by the SREL spy agency, from illegal phone tapping to dodgy dealing in luxury cars.

The 58-year-old prime minister came under fire for concentrating too much on his role as head of the eurozone finance ministers during the Eurogroup’s debt crisis and taking his eye off domestic issues.

Official figures showed the Socialists in second place at 20.3 percent, just ahead of the opposition Liberals at 18.2 percent, who made a sharp gain of 3.2 percentage points. That would give each party 13 seats in the legislature.

Juncker saluted the Liberals “for their score” in the polls. But at the same time, he said he did not “rule out” the possibility that a coalition could be formed against him.

While voters deem Juncker competent to continue to steer the state, surveys show a younger generation of politicians increasingly picking up support, notably 40-year-old Liberal Party chief Xavier Bettel.

“We have won the day,” Bettel said on election night. The voters have “clearly given us a mandate to go back into government, or to form a government.”

Also expected to make gains was Greens newcomer Francois Bausch, who for the past three years has run the Luxembourg town hall with Bettel. However, estimates showed the Greens losing one of seven seats.

Bettel and Bausch have made no secret of their hopes of forming a coalition government without Juncker’s conservatives.

But they would need backing from the Socialists, who withdrew their support from Juncker amid the spy scandal.

Socialist leader Etienne Schneider said it was “time for change” on his Facebook page.

“If it’s possible to carry out . . . real reforms aimed at modernizing the state and giving it a new impetus, then yes, I’m in favor of a three-way coalition,” added Schneider, who has made no secret of wanting to become prime minister.

“Today I really want to become prime minister to give a new dynamic to the country and reform it from top to bottom,” said the 42-year-old departing economy minister.

According to partial results, the Liberals, Greens and Socialists would have just enough seats to form a majority, with an estimated 32 seats.

On the campaign trail, Juncker hammered home the message that a three-party coalition — which would be the first of its kind for Luxembourg — would undermine the nation.

He has nevertheless said he would be prepared to govern in a two-way coalition with the Socialists, Greens or Liberals.

The CSV campaigned on Juncker’s experience — he has spent nearly half his life in government — and a need for stability in the tiny Grand Duchy wedged between Belgium, France and Germany.

Although the small nation is comparatively wealthy, unemployment has edged up to nearly 7 percent and debt has trebled in the past 15 years.

Nine parties in all were running in the elections, from the extreme left-wing Dei Lenk to populist right-wing group ADR.