Editorial: A warning to Chancellor Merkel

There has long been an assumption, undiminished as Germany entered this election year, that the centre-right is certain to prevail and Angela Merkel will be returned for a third term as Chancellor in the autumn. The assumption is as little contested in Germany as it is outside the country. And the fortunes of the main opposition parties have done little to persuade anyone otherwise.

The Social Democratic Party's choice of candidate, the former Finance Minister, Peer Steinbrück, is seen as presenting less of a threat to Ms Merkel than the former Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, would have done, had he thrown his hat in the ring. The free-market FDP has languished in the polls as a result of lacklustre leadership and the same effect that playing second fiddle in a coalition has had on the Liberal Democrats in Britain.

The weakness of the opposition has prompted the thought that Ms Merkel could be in need of a new coalition partner – the Greens are thought a possibility – but not that the CDU could lose. That assumption might need to be revisited in the light of Sunday's regional election in Lower Saxony. In a nail-biting finish – and two of Germany's three last general elections have been almost as close – victory went to the SPD, in alliance with the Greens.

This result matters not only because the initial forecast was for a relatively easy CDU win, with the polls narrowing sharply towards election day, but because Ms Merkel had campaigned enthusiastically for David McAllister, who was seen as her protégé. The lustre borrowed from the Chancellor, it turned out though, was not quite enough to clinch victory for Mr McAllister, nor was the novelty, on which he capitalised, of his Scottish roots.

At a time when the political left is enjoying something of a resurgence in the industrialised world, in part as a response to the economic crisis, the Lower Saxony result offers a warning. For all Ms Merkel's personal popularity and success, she and her party cannot rest on their laurels. There are eight months of campaigning to come and Germany's 2013 election is far from over.