Exit polls in a German state election on Sunday show that voters have likely ousted a governing center-right government made up of the same parties as Chancellor Angela Merkel's federal coalition.
A poll for Germany's public broadcaster ARD on Sunday found the conservative Christian Democrats remained almost flat at 30.6 percent and their coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, slid from 14.9 percent to 8.3 percent in the country's northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein state.
It says the opposition Social Democrats gained 4.5 percent and secured 29.9 percent of the vote, the Greens stood at about 14 percent and the upstart Pirates party achieved seats in the legislature for the first time with 8 percent.
The communist Left Party failed to secure enough votes to pass the minimum threshold to re-enter parliament, but the SSW party representing the state's Danish minority secured 4.5 percent and will again have seats in the legislature.
While the opposition failed to secure an outright majority, the Social Democrats could form a coalition government with the Greens and the party of the Danish minority -- an option which all parties involved have welcomed.
"There are two parties that have lost in Schleswig-Holstein," the Social Democrats' chairman Sigmar Gabriel said, insisting that Merkel's local center-right coalition was defeated, giving his party the ability to form a government with the Greens and the Danish minority.
According to the exit poll -- and a similar one by public broadcaster ZDF -- that coalition would have a razor-thin majority of 35 seats in the 69-seat legislature. More reliable partial results were expected later Sunday.
The state's election commission said turnout half an hour before poll stations closed at 1600 GMT (12 p.m. EDT) was 56 percent, down from 69 percent in the last elections. About 2.24 million were eligible to vote.
The undeniable winner of the election night, however, was Germany's upstart Pirates party, which leaped from 2 percent to 8 percent.
The Pirates offer little ideology and focus on promoting their flagship policies of near-total transparency and an unrestricted Internet. While they have no position on policy issues such as Europe's debt crisis or foreign policy, the party has secured seats in two state legislatures since last year. Many analysts have described their surprising victories as a protest vote against the country's political establishment.
For Merkel, the defeat of her local allies comes as a blow only one week before elections are due in North-Rhine Westphalia state -- the country's most populous with 18 million inhabitants -- where her party also risks losing power, according to recent polls.
Juergen Baetz can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz