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State loss a blow to Merkel, but far from decisive

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[January 21, 2013]  BERLIN (AP) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel says a state election loss months before a national vote was painful -- but she's downplaying the implications for her quest for a third term.

Merkel stressed Monday she still aims to win a new four-year term for the center-right coalition of her conservatives and their struggling junior partners, the Free Democrats.

Germany's center-left opposition ejected those parties from the government of Lower Saxony state Sunday by a wafer-thin margin. It was one of the last major tests before national parliamentary elections, due in September.

Lower Saxony's conservative governor lost his job despite his personal popularity -- and surveys show Merkel herself is much more popular than her coalition with the pro-market Free Democrats.


AP's earlier story is below.


A defeat for Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition in a high-profile state election is a blow to the German leader as she seeks a third term later this year -- but it's far from clear that the opposition will gather the strength to oust the popular conservative.

The opposition Social Democrats and Greens narrowly ejected Merkel's center-right alliance from the government of Lower Saxony state in an election Sunday, winning a single-seat majority in its legislature. It was one of the last major tests before national parliamentary elections, which are due in September.

Sunday's vote saw a state governor from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union lose his job despite his personal popularity -- and surveys show Merkel herself is considerably more popular than her coalition of the last 3 1/2 years with the pro-market Free Democrats.

The combination of CDU and Free Democrats, which has developed a reputation for persistent infighting, hasn't won a state election since Merkel won her second term in 2009's national vote and has now lost control of four states.

"Change has begun in Lower Saxony, and I hope it will be completed in September," Lower Saxony's incoming governor, Stephan Weil, a Social Democrat, said Monday.

The party's campaign focuses on narrowing the gap between Germany's haves and have-nots, with measures such as tax increases and a mandatory national minimum wage.

Merkel and her party have been bolstered in national polls by a relatively robust economy, low unemployment and the chancellor's hard-nosed handling of Europe's debt crisis. They also have profited so far from a stumbling performance by her Social Democratic challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, while the Free Democrats took much of the blame for internal government squabbling -- particularly over the party's unfulfilled demands for tax cuts.

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On Sunday, tactical voting by conservative supporters helped the Free Democrats easily clear the 5 percent support needed to win parliamentary seats -- which pre-election polls suggested it might not. But that weighed down the performance of Merkel's party without giving the combination enough votes to hold off the opposition.

The outcome is "not a good foundation for the national election campaign," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "The distance between the chancellor's popularity and people's approval of the government's work is so large that that would give me cause for concern."

Both sides will see Sunday's result as an incentive to mobilize their supporters, and Neugebauer noted that while the opposition alliance has helped its chances by presenting a united front, "the situation at a federal level is a bit different" than in Lower Saxony.

A hard-left competitor that is strong in Germany's ex-communist east and not expected to join any government, the Left Party, is expected to win seats in the federal Parliament, unlike in Lower Saxony -- reducing the chance of a majority for the Social Democrats and Greens.

Recent national polls have shown a majority neither for Merkel's center-right coalition nor for the main opposition parties. That raises the possibility of Merkel -- whose party consistently leads polls -- returning to the "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats under which she ran Germany for four years after narrowly winning election in 2005. The centrist combination was popular with voters but disliked strongly by both parties' supporters.

Senior figures in Merkel's CDU insisted that a center-right majority is still on the cards in September, but acknowledged that Sunday's outcome raised questions.

It showed that "the CDU must fight for its own votes in the national election campaign," said Armin Laschet, a deputy party leader.

"It must also signal that those who want Angela Merkel must vote for Angela Merkel, and if you do that you can't send the wrong signal with your vote, as perhaps happened yesterday."

[Associated Press]

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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