Center left ousts Merkel coalition in cliffhanger state vote

Sun Jan 20, 2013 8:02pm EST
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By Erik Kirschbaum

HANOVER (Reuters) - Germany's center-left opposition edged Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives from power in a regional vote in Lower Saxony on Sunday, reviving its flagging hopes of defeating her in September's national election.

The Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens won by a single seat after a close race for power in Germany's fourth most populous state. Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) lost ground but their Free Democrat (FDP) allies defied forecasts that they would be ejected from the state assembly in Hanover.

"A one-vote majority can be very stable," said Stephan Weil, Hanover mayor and SPD state premier candidate after a nail-biting six-hour wait for results that were long too close to call.

The outcome will be a setback for Merkel, but the 58-year-old Chancellor still enjoys high personal popularity for her leadership role in the euro crisis where she defended Germany's economic interests. She might also cite the success of the FDP as a good omen for September polls she hopes will return her center-right coalition.

The SPD had been dreading the results, their own candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrueck, struggling to rally support after a series of gaffes.

Steinbrueck acknowledged "shared responsibility" for a patchy campaign in Lower Saxony, a major agricultural and industrial center, but said the result proved that the SPD was clearly still in the race for September.

"This means a change of government and of power are possible this year," said Steinbrueck.

SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel - a former state premier of Lower Saxony himself - said with a smile: "If we get a result like this when we mess up, we can do anything."   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