From outside Germany, Ms Angela Merkel has long looked invincible. She has come to symbolise German politics as Ms Margaret Thatcher once did Britain's. But on Monday she saw her centre-right coalition narrowly ousted by the opposition centre-left in a regional election that shifts the balance of power in Germany and could have profound implications for her chances of re-election in September.
She told a press conference in Berlin that the result in Lower Saxony was "emotionally difficult" to deal with after the "rollercoaster" expectation that the Christian Democrat and liberal Free Democrat (FDP) coalition led by the half-Scottish David McAllister would narrowly succeed.
It is a blow to her hopes for a third term in office, and as the 12 consecutive defeat for her party at state level it will give the centre-left a majority in the upper house, allowing the opposition to block major legislation or initiate laws that could make Ms Merkel's life extremely difficult.
Mr Gerd Langguth, Merkel's biographer and a political scientist at Bonn University, called the election "a veritable wake-up call" for Merkel. "While she still has a definite majority at the federal level, and she can still be re-elected, this has taken the wind out of her sails somewhat," he said.
The election proved to be one of the most nail-biting German polls in recent years, with results initially indicating Mr McAllister's coalition had succeeded by one seat, then suggesting a dead-heat, and finally showing that the Social Democrats and Greens had secured 68 seats in the Hanover parliament, one more than the incumbents. The biggest shock was the FDP's ability to come from nearly failing to get even the minimum 5% needed to get into parliament, to secure almost 10%.
That was the result of tactical voting by CDU supporters anxious to see the centre-right alliance survive, but came at the expense of Merkel's party, whose support fell by six points to 36%.
Analysts said 100,000 CDU voters had given their votes to the FDP. The FDP leadership was nevertheless in celebratory mood. It rejected an offer to resign by party leader Philipp Rosler, who had been widely expected to go, but signalled a change in its election strategy by naming veteran Rainer Bruderle as its new main candidate.
"The CDU will, I'm sure, stress their independence far more and fight for every vote," said Oskar Niedermayer, of Berlin's Free University. "Far more important than switching votes between parties, which is merely a redistribution of them, would be for the parties to have stronger campaigns that mobilise voters far more."
Mr McAllister announced he would not lead his party in opposition. He is likely to take some blame for supporters' tactical voting after strongly hinting to CDU voters that they should give one of their two votes to the FDP. He had been expected to get a place on the national stage if his party failed to be re-elected due to a poor FDP performance. Shocked CDU leaders huddled together on Monday to rethink the plan to focus on Ms Merkel's personality.
The Lower Saxony election was very much a personality-led race, pitting the charismatic Mr McAllister - whose unique selling point, his Scottishness, was played to the hilt - against the wooden SPD candidate, Mr Stephan Weil. Bagpipes and talk of Scots' thriftiness shaped Mr McAllister's rallies, and Ms Merkel was brought in to support him, earning him the nickname "Merkel's Mac" and heightening speculation that he might succeed her. That did not stop Ms Merkel giving Mr McAllister her full backing yesterday, as she called him "one of the best and most able heads of the CDU".
The biggest single winner of the night was the Green party, which won 13.7%, its best ever result in the state.
©Guardian News & Media 2013