BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to size up her election-year strategy Monday after a bitter defeat to the centre-left opposition in a cliffhanger state poll.
In one of the tightest state races in recent memory, the Social Democrats and the Greens Sunday eked out a one-seat majority in Lower Saxony over the incumbent coalition of Merkel's Christian Democrats with the Free Democrats.
After a suspense-packed night with broad implications for the September general election, the centre-left camp said it aimed to use its victory to create fresh momentum in its bid to deprive Merkel of a third four-year term.
She was to meet her party and hold a news conference at 1145 GMT.
"It shows the race until September is far from over," the Social Democrats' embattled challenger to Merkel, Peer Steinbrueck, said.
Merkel, who campaigned hard for state premier David McAllister, a half-Scot seen as a potential successor to her, enjoys a strong lead in national polls due to her fierce defence of German interests in the eurozone crisis.
But pundits said the state win could help shore up the battered campaign of the gaffe-prone Steinbrueck.
The website of news weekly Der Spiegel called the result a "nightmare" for the chancellor.
"It could not have been worse for Merkel and the CDU," it wrote. "The message for the national election is clear: the fight for the chancellery will be much more brutal than Merkel imagined."
After a series of regional poll setbacks, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) were the strongest party with 36 percent of the vote.
Their state coalition partners for the last decade, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), drew nearly 10 percent -- more than doubling many pollsters' forecasts and tallying their best result in Lower Saxony in post-war history.
But their cumulative result fell just short of the Social Democrats' (SPD) around 33 percent and the Greens' 14 percent, meaning the opposition can build a governing majority in Germany's fourth most populous state.
The FDP, Merkel's junior partner in government since 2009, got a lift from CDU voters splitting their ballots under Germany's two-vote system in a bid to rescue the coalition.
Around 101,000 voters who backed the conservatives in 2008 plumped for the FDP this time.
"The black-yellow camp is not growing," Der Spiegel wrote, referring to Merkel's alliance. "It is cannibalising itself."
Some 6.2 million people were called to the polls in the northwestern state home to auto giant Volkswagen.
If the FDP had failed to win representation, its embattled leader Philipp Roesler, who is also Merkel's vice chancellor and economy minister and who hails from Lower Saxony, would likely have been forced to step down.
The surprise outcome seemed to grant him a reprieve.
"It is a great day for the FDP in Lower Saxony but it is also a great day for the FDP and liberals in Germany as a whole," a beaming Roesler told reporters.
The centre-left Sueddeutsche Zeitung said the election granted both the flailing FDP and the beleaguered Social Democrats a possible new lease of life.
"The FDP now has time to recover, to sort itself out," it wrote, noting it was still fighting for survival with dismal national poll ratings. "The SPD has the same task ahead."
Steinbrueck, a former finance minister from Merkel's 2005-09 "grand coalition" government, has run into trouble with revelations that he made around 1.25 million euros ($1.66 million) over the last three years in speaking fees, and with comments that Merkel owed much of her popularity to her gender.
Despite the narrow win, Steinbrueck admitted he had been of little help to his party in the key poll.
"The Social Democrats did not have tailwinds from Berlin," he said. "I share a significant part of the responsibility."
After Lower Saxony, only the southern state of Bavaria is expected to vote before the general election.