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Luxembourg's veteran PM battles for re-election

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Voters in tiny but wealthy Luxembourg went to the polls Sunday, with Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Europe's longest-serving leader, facing a tough battle to extend his 18-year rule after a spy scandal.

Just under 240,000 people were called to the ballot box in the EU's richest state per capita for an election brought forward by seven months after the discovery of misconduct in the secret services.

Juncker's centre-right Christian Social People's Party (CSV) has won every election bar one in Luxembourg since its establishment in 1944 but the prime minister's coalition with the socialist party splintered over misdemeanours by the SREL spy agency.

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

The SREL, which Juncker oversees, was accused of a series of scandals ranging from illegal phone-tapping to dodgy dealing in luxury cars.

Casting his vote, Juncker said: "I want the CSV to remain the strongest party so that we can govern for the next five years. If this is not the case, I will be an opposition MP."

Polls show the CSV is expected to lose seats in the 60-member parliament but likely to remain the country's dominant political force.

Though Luxembourgers 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.

Also expected to make gains in the weekend vote is Greens newcomer Francois Bausch. who for the past three years has run the Luxembourg town hall with Bettel.

Bettel and Bausch have made no secret of their hopes of forming a coalition government without Juncker's Christian Democrats.

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 modernising the state and giving it a new impetus, then yes, I'm in favour 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 outgoing economy minister.

On the campaign trail, Juncker hammered home the message that a three-party coalition for Luxembourg -- which would be the first of its kind -- 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 France, Germany and Belgium.

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

Polls closed at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) with early results expected later Sunday.

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

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131020/luxembourgs-veteran-pm-battles-re-election