Preliminary results of the first key election in Germany's federal election year point to a draw in Lower Saxony state between Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right and the opposition Social Democrats and Greens.
Sunday's dead heat election left open whether parliament in the state capital Hannover would again be governed by Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and allied pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) or switch to a new potential coalition of the opposition Social Democrats and Greens.
Prognoses published by the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF put Merkel's regional CDU - led by incumbent premier David McAllister - at between 36 and 37 percent and the FDP at just under 10 percent.
The opposition Social Democrats Party (SPD) led by Stephan Weil got around about 32.6 percent and their potential allies the Greens 13.5 percent. That was the Greens' highest result in Lower Saxony - five percent more compared to Lower Saxony's last election in 2008.
Updated prognoses oscillated by only one seat into the late evening, with McAllister's CDU-FDP grouping and the SPD-Green combination each on about 46 percent.
The uncertainty follows the loss of three states by the Merkel camp in elections over the past three years.
Reprieve for Rösler's FDP
The outcome for Hannover's 135-seat parliament amounts to a reprieve for the regional FDP (pictured above) led by Stefan Birkner and especially for the FDP's embattled federal leader and German Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler, who originates from Lower Saxony.
In pre-election surveys, the FDP had been languishing under the five-percent electoral law hurdle for re-entry to parliament.
The polling agency Wahlen said its exit survey of 20,000 voters on Sunday showed the FDP's return to parliament was due to many CDU adherents donating their second party vote to the CDU's ally. Lower Saxony has a two-vote system - one for the local candidate and one for the party of choice.
For McAllister's conservatives the result was six percent lower than Lower Saxony's 2008 election but possibly sufficient to govern again in Hannover with the FDP. For Weil's regional SPD, the result was a gain of about two percent.
McAllister, a half-Scot, became premier in 2010 when his CDU predecessor Christian Wulff became federal president, only to loose that top post early last year.
Absent in the Hannover's new parliament will be 2008's new entrant Left party. On Sunday, it garnered only 3.5 percent among Lower Saxony's 6.1 million entitled voters.
Despite snowy weather, the voter turnout on Sunday was 60 percent, up about three percent from participation in 2008.
The once upstart Internet-freedom Pirate party missed entry to Hannover's assembly on Sunday, scoring only about 2 percent, according to the initial prognoses.
Steinbrück vows more "tailwind"
Merkel's SPD challenger for Germany's federal election due in late September, Peer Steinbrück, conceded that he and the SPD headquarters in Berlin should have given Weil more "tailwind" but said a SPD-Greens alliance could still win office at federal level.
Since Steinbrück began his campaign in December, surveys have shown him making few gains among voters.
Lower Saxony was closely watched because its political constellation matched Merkel's coalition government at the federal level in Berlin.
ipj/hc (AFP, dpad, Reuters, dpa)