State Loss A Blow To Merkel, But Far From Decisive

By GEIR MOULSON

BERLIN (AP) â¿¿ The defeat of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition in a high-profile state election is a blow to the German leader as she seeks a third term later this year. But it's far from clear that the opposition can build on its narrow win to oust the popular conservative.

The opposition Social Democrats and Greens ejected Merkel's center-right alliance from the government of Lower Saxony state Sunday, winning a single-seat majority in its legislature. It was a major test before national parliamentary elections, which are due in September.

Merkel said "a defeat hurts all the more" when it is so close, but stressed how close her coalition came to winning and insisted that a victory seemed "completely impossible" a few months ago. That, she said after leaders of her Christian Democratic Union met Monday, "is also a good message, that we can win."

Still, Lower Saxony's CDU governor lost his job despite his personal popularity ⿿ and surveys show Merkel herself is considerably more popular than her coalition of the last 3 ½ years with the pro-market Free Democrats.

"Merkel is a queen without a country," charged Andrea Nahles, the general secretary of the main opposition Social Democrats. "It turned out that her virtual popularity in polls can't be transferred to the streets."

The combination of CDU and Free Democrats, which has a reputation for persistent infighting, hasn't won a state election since Merkel won her second term in 2009's national vote and has now lost control of four states.

Merkel stressed that she still wants to secure a new term for the combination nationally â¿¿ though she also made clear that her party will pay greater attention to broadening its own support.

The opposition's campaign focuses on narrowing the gap between Germany's haves and have-nots, with measures such as tax increases and a crackdown on tax evasion.

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