Merkel coalition struggles to keep power in state vote: exit poll

Sun Jan 20, 2013 2:43pm EST
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By Erik Kirschbaum

HANOVER (Reuters) - Angela Merkel's conservatives appeared to be struggling to hold onto power in a German state election on Sunday against a center-left opposition showing it could yet mount a strong challenge to her chancellorship in September national polls.

In exit polls released after voting ended, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) remained the biggest party in the swing state of Lower Saxony with 36 percent. The chief victors of the evening, however, appeared to be their Free Democrat (FDP) allies who defied doomsayers to win 10 percent.

But the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens were also at 46 percent in the exit polls. Victory in Lower Saxony would boost their chances of depriving Merkel of a third term in the autumn despite a poor start by the SPD challenger Peer Steinbrueck.

"It's a neck-and-neck race and no one knows yet who will be the victor at the end of the night," said SPD candidate Stephan Weil, the mayor of state capital Hanover.

Neither of the two main parties needed success in Lower Saxony as much as the liberal FDP, whose survival in the local and national parliaments has been in doubt. They have polled under the 5 percent threshold for seats in either assembly.

Their projected result was twice that, and the song "Walking on Sunshine" blared from speakers at their election HQ in Hanover. As well as giving hapless FDP leader Philipp Roesler a reprieve, it may give Merkel a chance of repeating the center-right alliance for a third term rather than resorting to a "grand coalition" with the SPD, as she did from 2005-2009.

But that FDP success may have been at the cost of a decisive CDU result. Merkel's loyal Lower Saxony state premier, the half-Scottish David McAllister, was believed to have tacitly encouraged supporters to split their ballot to save the CDU's junior coalition ally from electoral oblivion.

"What is astonishing is that it looks like the CDU had a hidden campaign to get voters to use their second vote for the FDP so they could hold on to power," said politics professor Gero Neugebauer at Berlin's Free University."Yet the FDP didn't pick up all the votes lost to the CDU. As a whole the center-right bloc lost support in Lower Saxony."   Continued...

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers her speech during an election campaign with Lower Saxony's Christian Democratic state governor David McAllister (CDU) (not pictured) in Stade, January 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer