GERMANY’S center-left opposition won a wafer-thin victory over chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition in a major state election last night, dealing a setback as she seeks a third term at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy later this year.
The opposition Social Democrats and Greens won a single-seat majority in the state legislature in Lower Saxony, ousting the coalition of Ms Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the pro-market Free Democrats who have run the north-western region for ten years. The same parties form the national government.
Ms Merkel, 58, will seek another four-year term in a national parliamentary election expected in September. She and her party are riding high in
national polls, but the opposition hoped the Lower Saxony vote would show she is vulnerable. The outcome could boost what so far has been a sputtering campaign by Ms Merkel’s Social Democratic challenger, Peer Steinbrück.
“This evening gives us real tailwind for the national election,” said Katrin Göring-
Eckardt, a leader of Mr Steinbrück’s allies, the Greens. “We can and will manage to replace the [center-right] coalition.”
However, the close outcome also underscores the possibility of a messy result in September, with no clear winner.
Before yesterday’s election, the main question had been whether the Free Democrats, whose support has eroded badly since they joined Ms Merkel’s national government in 2009, would win the 5 per cent needed to gain seats in the state legislature. Recent polls had suggested that they might not.
The Free Democrats won 9.9 per cent of the vote, thanks to tactical voting by supporters of Ms Merkel’s conservatives. Many chose the smaller party so that the coalition’s “good policies for solid budgets, safe jobs and good education could be continued”, said CDU general secretary Hermann Groehe.
Despite the popularity of David McAllister, the state’s half-Scots CDU governor – tipped as a future chancellor – that helped push down the conservatives’ support to 36 per cent from
42.5 per cent in Lower Saxony’s last election in 2008.
They finished as the biggest single party but fell short of expectations.
The coalition of the CDU and Free Democrats has now lost control of four states since the smaller party joined Ms Merkel’s government in 2009.
At national level, the alliance has developed a poor image, with the Free Democrats taking much of the blame for government infighting. Ms Merkel and her party, meanwhile, have been bolstered by a relatively robust economy, low unemployment and the chancellor’s hard-nosed handling of Europe’s debt crisis.
Yesterday’s vote may calm intense recent speculation over whether the Free Democrats will force out their embattled leader, vice-chancellor Philipp Roesler.
Mr Roesler proclaimed yesterday “a great day” for his party.
Ms Merkel also has profited so far from stumbles by Mr Steinbrück, a former finance minister who drew criticism in recent weeks for saying that the chancellor earns too little – adding to the controversy over his own high earnings from speeches.
His party improved a little on its feeble performance five years ago in Lower Saxony, polling 32.6 per cent. Its allies, the Greens, made bigger gains, to 13.7 per cent. That gave them
49 and 20 seats, respectively, in the state legislature in Hannover; the CDU took 54 and the Free Democrats 14.
Opposition leaders argued that their gains and losses for the center-right showed a change to a center-left government is possible in Berlin, despite unpromising recent polls.
Mr Steinbrück conceded his recent troubles hadn’t helped, though.
“I am well aware that there was no tailwind from Berlin, and I am also aware that I bear a certain share of responsibility for that,” he told supporters. He said he felt “a certain amount of relief” at the result.