Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) suffered major losses in a key vote in the state of Hesse. But it's yet to be seen which party will be able to form a governing coalition.
Led by Merkel ally and incumbent Premier Roland Koch, who ran a controversial campaign focused on crime and immigration, the CDU took 36.8 percent of the vote, down from 48.8 percent in 2003.
"We didn't mobilize our own supporters enough," Koch said on public television. "This is not easily for me personally."
The rival Social Democrats (SPD), who rule together with Merkel's CDU at the national level, saw their support push up to 36.7 percent.
"We fought for a different political culture in this country and we won," said Koch's SPD challenger, Andrea Ypsilanti.
It remains unclear, however, which party will take power. The entry into Hesse's parliament of the new Left party -- a far-left grouping which came out of a merger of a Social Democratic splinter group and the successor party to the former East German communists -- prevents both CDU and SPD from securing a majority in the 110-seat state legislature in coalition with their preferred partners, the free-market liberal FDP and the Greens respectively. The Left party took home 5.1 percent, the FDP received 9.4 percent and the Greens got 7.5 percent.
A different case
In another state election, in Lower Saxony, incumbent CDU Premier Christian Wulff saw his support fall to 42.5 percent from 48.3 percent in 2003. Unlike in Hesse, however, his result is good enough for him to hold on to power in a coalition with the FDP.
Here the SPD scored its worst result in recent years, declining to around 30.3 percent from 33.4 percent in 2003.
In all, some 10.5 million people were eligible to vote in the two western states, in both of which Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have put up the premiers for the past five years.
A blow for Merkel
The setback which the conservatives were dealt in Hesse will also be seen as a blow to the chancellor, who stood firmly behind Roland Koch during the election campaign and repeatedly defended Koch's proposals for tougher measures against young criminals of foreign origin.
"In Hesse the conservatives have suffered such losses that it is clear that Koch's election campaign hasn't worked," said Richard Stöss, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
The SPD's Ypsilanti, on the other hand, focused in her campaign on the traditional SPD themes of wages, education and the integration of minorities. This has brought the Social Democrats a gain of almost 8 percent in comparison to the previous state election.
The result is likely to create even more tension in the already strained relations between the CDU and SPD on the national level, which some fear could result in a political stalemate in the "grand coalition" until the 2009 national elections.
An important race
The state elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony were widely seen as a test of the CDU's strength ahead of federal elections, which must be held by September 2009.
Merkel remains highly popular in Germany but faces risks from a slowing economy ahead of next year's national vote.
"A loss in Hesse would be bad for morale for the CDU nationally and for Merkel," political scientist Jürgen Falter told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Ypsilanti's victory in Hesse could potentially give SPD chief Kurt Beck a boost in his bid to dismantle labor market reforms introduced by Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder, which are credited with helping to fuel a recovery of Europe's biggest economy.
Social Democrats would also be likely to push harder to create a national minimum wage -- a popular proposal that many economists have branded a job killer.
The Left gaining ground
The fact that both state elections showed a clear shift to the left -- after years in which Merkel's conservatives outperformed the Social Democrats -- is, nonetheless, not all good news for the SPD.
The Left party passed the 5-percent threshold to enter the parliament in both states.
It is the first time that the party, led by former Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, will enter parliament in a large western state.
SPD officials have so far ruled out any possibility of entering into coalition agreements with the Left.
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