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HANOVER, Germany - The German ruling coalition was defeated in a key election in Lower Saxony state, preliminary official results showed late Sunday.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) earned 36 percent of the vote. Its pro-business ally the Free Democratic Party (FDP) got 9.9 percent.
The Social Democratic Party (SPD), the CDU's main rival, claimed a support rate of 32.6 percent, while its partner the Greens had 13.7 percent.
More than five hours after the end of the election, it was clear that the "red-green coalition" of the SPD and the Greens had succeeded in ousting the ruling "black-yellow coalition" of the CDU and the FDP, with a majority of seats in the state parliament of Lower Saxony.
In the 137-seat state parliament, the "red-green coalition" gained 69 seats, the "black-yellow coalition" got the remaining 68.
Stephan Weil of the SPD, mayor of the state's capital of Hanover, would replace David McAllister, the charismatic CDU new star, as the Lower Saxony prime minister for the next five years.
Throughout Sunday night, updating exit poll results were showing that the two coalition groups were running neck-and-neck. The victory of the SPD and the Greens came at the last minute with an advantage of only one seat. The CDU failed to retain its position as the ruling party, despite its efforts to rescue their junior partner from being kicked out of the parliament.
Opinion polls before Sunday's election showed that the FDP was difficult to reach the 5 percent threshold for any parliament seat, which could mean its leader, German Vice-Chancellor and Economic Minister Philipp Roesler, might have to resign.
Some CDU politicians had called on their own supporters to take advantage of German dual voting system to vote for the FDP in their second ballots. McAllister had also implicitly supported the idea.
As a result, the FDP earned almost 10 percent of the vote on Sunday, twice as many as what it could get at most in previous polls. The CDU, meanwhile, lost 6 percentage points compared to elections in 2008, when it successfully formed a ruling coalition with the FDP for the second term in Lower Saxony.
Sunday's election was seen as a rehearsal for the federal vote slated for late September. The CDU-FDP ruling coalition in the federal government faces the same challenge as McAllister's government in Lower Saxony.
The defeat of the ruling coalition in the fourth most populous state in Germany could be a warning sign for Chancellor Merkel, whose conservative party enjoyed a support of 43 percent in the latest polls by Emnid institute. But the FDP was supported by only 4 percent of voters.
In the absence of the FDP, the CDU might not be able to gain majority in Bundestag, the lower house of the federal parliament.
Merkel had hoped that the Lower Saxony election could create momentum for her party in the federal election campaign during the next eight months. Personally, she earned support from 59 percent of German voters, while her rival from the SPD, former finance minister Peer Steinbrueck, got only 18 percent.
The SPD candidate's image was largely damaged by his money-making speeches and his gaffes of saying that German chancellor's salary was too low, and attributing Merkel's popularity to her gender.
Victory in Lower Saxony, however, could give a strong boost for the SPD in its federal campaign.