Germany’s centre-left opposition beat Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling alliance on Sunday in a cliffhanger state poll eight months ahead of a national vote, official results showed.
In one of the tightest German state races in recent memory, the Social Democrats together with the Greens eked out a one-seat lead in Lower Saxony, just ahead of the incumbent coalition of Merkel’s Christian Democrats with the Free Democrats.
After a suspense-packed night with broad implications for the September general election and Merkel’s bid for a third four-year term, the centre-left camp said it aimed to use its victory to create fresh momentum.
“It shows the race until September is far from over,” the Social Democrats’ embattled challenger to Merkel, Peer Steinbrueck, said as the results came in.
Merkel enjoys a strong lead in national polls thanks to her fierce defence of German interests in the euro zone crisis.
But pundits said the state poll could help shore up the battered campaign of the gaffe-prone Steinbrueck.
Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) were the strongest party with around 36 per cent of the vote.
Their candidate, state premier David McAllister, a half-Scot widely seen as a potential Merkel successor, had held out hope down to the last, calling it a “heart-stopping night”.
Their coalition partners for the last decade, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), drew nearly 10 per cent – more than doubling many pollsters’ expectations and tallying their best result in the state in post-war history.
But their cumulative result fell just short of the Social Democrats’ (SPD) around 33 per cent and the Greens’ 14 per cent, meaning the opposition can build a governing majority in Germany’s fourth most populous state.
The FDP got a lift from CDU voters splitting their ballots under Germany’s two-vote system in a bid to rescue the coalition.
ARD television said about 101,000 voters who backed the conservatives in 2008 had plumped for the FDP this time.
Around 6.2 million people were called to the polls in Lower Saxony, a northwestern state home to auto giant Volkswagen.
If the FDP had failed to win representation, its embattled leader Philipp Roesler, who is also Merkel’s vice-chancellor and who hails from Lower Saxony, would likely have stepped down – possibly as soon as Sunday night.
The outcome seemed to give him a reprieve, if perhaps only brief.
“It is a great day for the FDP in Lower Saxony but it is also a great day for the FDP and liberals in Germany as a whole,” a beaming Roesler told reporters in Berlin.
Berlin’s daily Morgenpost said there were a number of lessons to draw from the vote.
“The CDU is not as strong as it feels. The FDP is not as dead as it looks. And a continuation of the black-yellow coalition in Berlin is no longer so unthinkable,” it wrote in an editorial to appear in its Monday issue, referring to Merkel’s coalition.
“The only thing that is sure is that it will be tight.”
Steinbrueck, a former finance minister from Merkel’s 2005-09 “grand coalition” government, was anointed by the SPD as its chancellor candidate late last year.
But he has run into trouble of late with revelations that he made around 1.25 million euros (US$1.66 million) over the last three years in speaking fees, and with comments that Merkel owed much of her popularity to her gender.
The SPD’s candidate in Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil, hinted that he had been forced to campaign in the face of headwinds out of Berlin.
“The SPD made gains, which is remarkable considering the not exactly easy conditions under which we fought for voters’ support in recent weeks,” he said.
After Lower Saxony, only the southern state of Bavaria is expected to vote before the September general election.