Regional elections spell trouble for Merkel
The Social Democrats and Greens narrowly won the elections in Lower Saxony on Sunday (20 January), indicating a tougher-than-expected race for Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition at general elections in September.
At the end of a race that pollsters said was too close to call, it all came down to less than one percent of the vote: the so-called "Red-Green" camp scored 46.3 percent of the vote and got one seat more in the regional parliament, enough to topple the ruling "Black-Yellow" coalition of Merkel's Conservatives and Liberals (45.9%).
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"If Merkel loses in September as much as Black-Yellow lost in Lower Saxony, she's gone. Congratulations to the Greens," Green leader Juergen Trittin tweeted on Sunday evening.
The surprise winner of the elections, Social-Democrat Stephan Weil, an uncharismatic mayor of Hannover, will now replace Angela Merkel's protegee David McAllister as governor of Lower Saxony.
Weil made it despite recent financial intrigues and gaffes surrounding the top candidate of the Social Democrats for the federal elections, Peer Steinbrueck.
"There was no tailwind from Berlin for Stephan Weil. I recognise that I have a certain responsibility for it," Steinbrueck said on Sunday during a speech at the Social Democrats' Berlin headquarters.
Steinbrueck tweeted when the final results were published that the reverse is true: "Thank you, Stephan! This gives us tailwind for the general elections in September."
But the big surprise of the evening was the unexpectedly good score of the Liberal Free Democrats.
At almost 10 percent of the vote, the FDP exceeded all expectations, after some pollsters cast doubt they would even make it into the regional legislature. Over 100,000 votes came from Christian-Democrat voters, who cast their second vote for the FDP in order to keep the ruling coalition in power.
The embattled FDP leader and Merkel's economy minister, Philipp Roesler, hailed the victory in his home state as a fresh beginning: "This is a great day for the Free Democrats in Lower Saxony and for the Free Democrats in Germany. The race has just begun."
Roesler is due to make an announcement later on Monday, with media speculating he may still hand over the leadership to parliamentary group chief Rainer Bruederle, as this could be a good moment to leave in glory, however.
The biggest losers of the elections were the Pirate Party and the radical-left Linke, who failed to make it into the parliament of Lower Saxony and are now struggling to find anew strategy for the general elections.
The Red-Green victory also strengthens their lead in the upper chamber (Bundesrat) over Merkel's coalition, to 36 out the Bundesrat's 69 seats.
Most legislation is handled in the lower chamber (Bundestag), but the Bundesrat has already blocked some bills over which it has power, such as a tax agreement with Switzerland.