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German coalition loses election in key state

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 9:46 p.m.

BERLIN — Germany's center-left opposition won a wafer-thin victory over Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition in a major state election on Sunday, dealing a setback as she seeks a third term at the helm of Europe's biggest economy later this year.

The opposition Social Democrats and Greens won a single-seat majority in the state legislature in Lower Saxony, ousting the coalition of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and the pro-market Free Democrats that has run the northwestern region for 10 years. The same parties form the national government.

The 58-year-old Merkel will seek another four-year term in a national parliamentary election expected in September. She and her party are riding high in national polls, but the opposition hoped the Lower Saxony vote would show she is vulnerable. The outcome could boost what so far has been a sputtering campaign by Merkel's Social Democratic challenger, Peer Steinbrueck.

“This evening gives us real tailwind for the national election,” said Katrin Goering-Eckardt, a leader of Steinbrueck's allies, the Greens. “We can and will manage to replace the (center-right) coalition.”

However, the close outcome underscores the possibility of a messy result in September, with no clear winner.

Before the election, the main question had been whether the Free Democrats, whose support has eroded badly since they joined Merkel's national government in 2009, would win the 5 percent needed to gain seats in the state legislature. Polls in recent months had suggested that they might not.

The Free Democrats won 9.9 percent of the vote, thanks to tactical voting by supporters of Merkel's conservatives. Many chose the smaller party so that the coalition's “good policies for solid budgets, safe jobs and good education could be continued,” said the general secretary of Merkel's party, Hermann Groehe.

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