BERLIN -- Chancellor Angela Merkel is without question the most powerful politician in Europe, trusted by German voters with their money and their future, but that still may not be enough to secure her a third term in elections this year.
A down-to-the-wire state election over the weekend has shaken up German politics, handing the upper house of Parliament squarely to the opposition and jeopardizing Ms. Merkel's re-election chances in September.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with her Christian Democratic party leaders, the chancellor did not try to play down the outcome of Sunday's vote in the state of Lower Saxony. "I don't want to beat around the bush, after such an emotional roller coaster a loss hurts all the more," said Ms. Merkel, standing beside her party's lead candidate from the state, a visibly shellshocked David McAllister, who had led the polls for months.
The rival Social Democrats and Greens were poised to take power in the state after eking out a one-seat majority in the state Parliament, ending a decade of conservative control. Once again it was the relative weakness of Ms. Merkel's coalition partners, the Free Democrats, that decided the election.
The Social Democrats took 32.6 percent of ballots, while the Greens won 13.7 percent, official preliminary results showed Monday, giving them 69 seats in the state legislature. Although the Christian Democrats emerged as the strongest party, with 36 percent of the vote, combined with their Free Democrat partners they were able to secure only 68 seats.
The Christian Democrats were so concerned about the smaller party's chances that their leaders implored their own voters to split their votes with the struggling party. In German elections each voter receives two ballots, one to vote for an individual candidate and the other for a party.
The tactic nearly worked. The Free Democrats, polling right around the 5 percent threshold for representation in the state Parliament, won 9.9 percent of the vote. Analysis showed that more than 100,000 voters from the Christian Democrats shared their votes with the Free Democrats.
Ms. Merkel can only hope that the Free Democrats put their house in order before parliamentary elections in eight months. Indeed, analysts interpreted the results as a worrying omen for Ms. Merkel as she squares off against her main challenger for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, the leader of the Social Democrats. Though he kicked off his campaign with a series of gaffes and trails far behind Ms. Merkel, voters will not actually be choosing one over the other.
Germany does not have a two-party, winner-take-all system; parliamentary politics come down to party success and their alliances. The chances of Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats winning an outright majority in September's elections are extremely low, polls show.
That means that Ms. Merkel needs the Free Democrats to pull out of their tailspin. Otherwise she could see a national repeat of the results in Lower Saxony, where her party wins the largest share of the vote but watches the Social Democrats and the Greens team up to take power.
Avoiding such an outcome will not be easy. Ms. Merkel is renowned for her tactical maneuvering but often criticized for succeeding at the expense of her associates and subordinates. Opinion surveys consistently show that she is more popular than ever, with voters particularly approving of her tough stance in the euro crisis on bailouts for deeply indebted nations like Greece. But analysts have questioned whether the Christian Democrats have therefore become too much of a one-woman party -- and perhaps have jeopardized the junior partners in the governing coalition by overshadowing them.
Philipp Rösler, the head of the pro-business Free Democrats and Ms. Merkel's vice chancellor, responded Monday to the Lower Saxony defeat by offering to step down as party chairman. The leadership decided that he would remain but not lead the party in the parliamentary elections, making Mr. Rösler in effect a lame duck.
Complicating matters further, the left-leaning coalition now enjoys an outright majority in Parliament's upper house, the Bundesrat, where state delegations vote on legislation. The Social Democrats and Greens can now reject bills that need the upper house's approval, forcing their return to the lower house for more debate.
Although the shift of power is not expected to affect the government's handling of the euro crisis, it could provide opportunities for the opposition to drag out other issues, resulting in an extended period of gridlock that could damage the governing coalition's public standing.
Ms. Merkel made it clear that the Free Democrats remain her preferred partner, but that she would not rule out a return to her coalition from 2005 to 2009, in which her Christian Democrats governed with the Social Democrats.
"It will be a national election in which every party fights for its own votes," Ms. Merkel said.
The result in Lower Saxony continued a trend of losing state elections for the Christian Democrats in important states where they once held clear majorities.
Last May, the Christian Democrats failed to take control of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, where the Social Democrats and Greens consolidated control, and they lost Schleswig-Holstein.
A year earlier, they had been forced to step down after 58 years at the helm in Baden-Württemberg.
Although the Christian Democrats fared much better in Lower Saxony than in those states, as Jürgen Falter, a professor of political science at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, pointed out, it set a dangerous precedent for what could happen in September.
"The result showed that the conservative camp can rack up a considerable result, but that may still not be enough to build a coalition," he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.