German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government suffered a blow in weekend elections.

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German voters dealt a blow to the ruling centre-right coalition government of Angela Merkel

Hands the narrowest of victories to the centre-left opposition in a critical election

(Financial Times) —  

German voters have dealt a new blow to the ruling centre-right coalition government of Angela Merkel, handing the narrowest of victories to the centre-left opposition in a critical election in the state of Lower Saxony, according to the final forecasts of German television.

The Social Democratic party and its Green party allies have won a one-seat majority in the state parliament in Hanover, according to predictions from the ARD and ZDF broadcasters, after hours of speculation that the result would be a dead heat or give a single-seat lead for the government.

The predicted outcome, yet to be confirmed by official results, would be a blow to Ms Merkel at the start of a year that culminates in a national election in September, when the alliance between her Christian Democratic Union, and the liberal Free Democratic party, will once again be defending its majority.

The two parties were also defending a majority in Lower Saxony against the “red-green” alliance of SPD and Greens, and appear to have failed by the narrowest of margins. The two television polls suggest that the SPD-Green coalition will have 69 seats in the state parliament, against 68 for the CDU-FDP combination.

David McAllister, the current CDU state premier, said he would wait for the official results before conceding defeat. He saw his party lose 6 percentage points of support, falling to just 36 per cent, as a result of tactical voting in favour of the much weaker FDP.

The liberal party was in danger of falling below 5 per cent support – the minimum needed to win seats in the state parliament. In the end, the party won almost 10 per cent of the electorate, thanks to tactical voting by CDU supporters.

“We are waiting until the final figures are announced,” Mr McAllister said on Sunday night. If the final result is a dead heat, he said he would talk to the opposition parties about forming an alternative coalition.

A victory for the SPD and Greens could give a boost to their national campaign to replace Ms Merkel’s government in September. But the chancellor’s personal popularity has given the CDU a 17-point lead over the SPD in recent opinion polls.

The big problem for Ms Merkel is the weakness of the FDP, which is polling below 5 per cent in many recent surveys. What Lower Saxony has shown is that even with tactical voting by CDU supporters, it may not be enough to guarantee a centre-right majority.

A red-green victory in Lower Saxony would be a great relief to Peer Steinbrück, the SPD candidate for chancellor hoping to defeat Ms Merkel in September. He admitted on Sunday night that his own political mistakes had not helped the campaign in Lower Saxony, but the result would give his party a significant fair wind for the national election.

The SPD still came second to the CDU in Lower Saxony – with 32.6 per cent to 36 per cent for Ms Merkel’s party – but the result was still an improvement by 2.3 percentage points on its previous performance.

However the party with the clearest improvement in Lower Saxony – Germany’s second-largest federal state, and the fourth most populous – was the environmentalist Green party, which increased its vote from 8 per cent to 13.7 per cent, according to the latest TV predictions. It has now replaced the FDP as the kingmaker in German elections, holding the balance of power between CDU and SPD, the two big centre-right and centre-left parties.