* Merkel's CDU overestimated their support in Lower Saxony
* Strategy of lending votes to coalition partner misfired
* Policies outweigh personality in Germans' voting choices
* Lessons for Chancellor 8 months before national vote
By Stephen Brown and Alexandra Hudson
BERLIN, Jan 21 If Angela Merkel's conservatives
draw any lesson from the latest election setback in Lower Saxony
state for her bid for a third term as chancellor, it is this:
don't bet that her popularity will automatically translate into
Encouraged by half-Scottish state premier David McAllister's
confident campaign, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) thought
they could afford to give supporters tacit approval to split
their ballots to save their struggling Free Democrat (FDP)
The strategy backfired. Badly.
The FDP, which has a record of confounding forecasts of its
demise, far surpassed the 5 percent threshold for entering the
state assembly with a surprising 9.9 percent of the vote.
"A substantial number of voters deliberately voted for the
FDP in order to be absolutely certain that we would get into the
assembly, and that I would stay in power as state premier," said
an ashen McAllister on Monday.
The CDU could ill afford to lose those votes. It remained
the biggest party at 36 percent but lost more than 6 percentage
points from the last state vote, resulting in a loss of power to
the Social Democrats and Greens, who clinched a majority of just
one seat, which Merkel said made defeat all the more painful.
The result put wind in the sails of the opposition and sent
clear warnings to Merkel eight months ahead of the federal vote,
after three years of setbacks in state elections for the CDU.
Merkel needs the FDP at national level to haul themselves
over the 5 percent threshold to continue her coalition.
"The CDU has now seen very clearly how bad things can go
when you campaign for a split vote, as it did for the benefit of
the FDP," said Oskar Niedermayer, political scientist Berlin
Although McAllister denies any vote-sharing strategy, he
repeated throughout the campaign that he wanted to continue to
govern with the FDP and even attended one of their rallies.
"People voted strategically at the last moment. The FDP got
votes based on the fear that McAllister wouldn't get back in
power. But in the end too many people thought like this," said
Richard Hilmer, head of pollster Infratest dimap.
"Germany's voting system, which allows people two votes,
encourages people to try and craft the coalition they would like
to see, but the danger is that this can have incalculable
results," he told Reuters.
Merkel, appearing alongside the crestfallen McAllister on
Monday, stressed the CDU would campaign solely for itself in the
national election: "One of the lessons from Lower Saxony is that
we don't need to be so afraid that the FDP will vanish from the
picture ... It is important that we don't target the same
The Lower Saxony election offers lessons for Merkel not just
on coalition arithmetic and vote sharing but also on the risks
of relying too heavily on personal popularity.
McAllister, the 42-year old son of a British soldier and a
German mother was by far the most popular candidate, not least
because of his colourful election campaign, dismissed by the
opposition as a "Cuban-style personality cult". He played up his
Scottish roots, complete with bagpipes for his campaign music.
Yet it was the more sober, less personality-driven campaigns
of the SPD and Greens that won support in Lower Saxony, where
voters remember all too well the demise of their notoriously
flashy previous state premier, Christian Wulff from the CDU.
Handpicked as German president by Merkel, Wulff was forced
to resign in disgrace last year over his personal finances.
Merkel herself has a huge advantage over SPD challenger Peer
Steinbrueck. A poll last week gave her 59 percent of the vote
compared with just 18 percent for Steinbrueck, but pollsters see
support for her centre-right coalition waning.
"The centre-right government itself is not that popular.
Economically they have been successful, but at the expense of
policies of social equality. This is much more on voters' minds
now, particularly when times are tougher," said Hilmer.
Although the SPD jeered that the FDP owed its survival in
Lower Saxony to a "blood transfusion" from the CDU, the liberal
party's leader Philipp Roesler won a reprieve after criticisms
that he had let it slide in nationwide polls to just 2 percent.
But in a sign of lingering unhappiness with Roesler, the FDP
put veteran parliamentary leader Rainer Bruederle in charge of
the campaign for September's federal elections.