Merkel loses Lower Saxony eight months ahead of the big election and despite her popularity
In an extremely tight German state election, and eight months ahead of the national election, the Christian Democrats (CDU) lost Lower Saxony, which comes as a blow for Chancellor Angela Merkel who enjoys majority support in public opinion polls.
CDU led by rising star David McAllister were convinced that over the past week they were on the verge of a stunning come-from-behind victory in Lower Saxony, a major agricultural and industrial region.
But on Sunday, they came up frustratingly short, losing power to the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, who together garnered just one more seat in the state assembly than the centre-right.
The defeat is a bitter one for Merkel, even if she remains a strong favourite to win a third term in a federal election eight months from now.
In one fell swoop, it gives the centre-left a majority in the Bundesrat upper house of parliament, meaning the opposition can block major legislation from Merkel's government and initiate laws themselves.
I assume it won't be possible to push anything through the Bundesrat that the SPD doesn't want, Volker Kauder, a Merkel ally and leader of her CDU in parliament, told German public television on Monday morning.
That will not change after the national election in September, even if Merkel's centre-right coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) manages to hold onto power.
In the run-up to the federal vote, Merkel's room for manoeuvre will be limited and the notoriously risk-averse German leader may take a more cautious stance on a range of policy issues, including her management of the euro zone debt crisis.
The vote is also a blow to McAllister, the 42-year-old half-Scot who had ruled Lower Saxony since 2010 and become a protégé of the chancellor, declaring on the eve of the vote that he was happy to be Merkel's Mac.
There will be much hand-wringing in the CDU about McAllister's not-so-subtle hints to supporters in the weeks before the election that they use their votes to boost the score of the FDP.
The FDP, which had been expected to struggle to make the 5% threshold needed to enter the state assembly, ended up with a surprisingly strong score of 9.9%, largely thanks to CDU backers who split their two votes (in German elections voters cast ballots for both a party and a local candidate).
Yet the FDP strong showing appears to have come at the expense of McAllister's CDU, which scored 36%, down 6.5 points from their last result in Lower Saxony in 2008 and well below the 40% plus that opinion polls had forecast.
With the loss, Merkel's CDU has now lost to the SPD and Greens in five states over the past two years, including in their long-time southern stronghold of Baden-Wuerttemberg and in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.
The string of losses is likely to fuel anxiety about Merkel's ability to leverage her own popularity into votes for her party.
The state election in Lower Saxony should be a warning for Angela Merkel for the federal election in the autumn, conservative daily Die Welt wrote on Monday.