Merkel's party wins big in key German state election
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives defeated the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) in a key state election on Sunday, exit polls showed, boosting their hopes of retaining power in September's national vote.
The Christian Democrats (CDU) saw a strong surge of support in Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), which is home to one in five German voters and has often been a national trend-setter in elections.
The CDU won 34.5 percent, up from 26.3 percent in 2012, according to an exit poll on public broadcaster ARD just after polls closed.
The SPD, which has ruled NRW for most of the past half century, fell to 30.5 percent from 39.1 percent. It was the third straight state defeat for the SPD since March, casting a shadow over their once bright hopes of denying Merkel a fourth four-year term in the national election on Sept. 24.
Crushing defeat for social democrats & impressive result for Merkel's Christian democrats in Germany's largest state https://t.co/i00e24COmX— Andreas Umland (@UmlandAndreas) May 14, 2017
It was not clear whether the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the CDU's preferred partners projected to win 12 percent, had enough votes for the two allies to form a majority in the state.
What was clear is that the ruling SPD-Greens coalition fell far short of a majority as the Greens won about 6 percent, down from 11.3 percent in 2012. The nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has no coalition allies, won 7.5 percent.
"This is a great day for North Rhine-Westphalia," said local CDU leader Armin Laschet, who will most likely become state premier. "We accomplished our two goals: defeating the SPD-Greens coalition and becoming the strongest party in the state."
SPD state premier Hannelore Kraft quickly conceded defeat and said she would stand down as her party's local leader.
"It's sad we lost so many districts. I take personal responsibility for this defeat ...," she said.
The SPD's national leader and its candidate for chancellor in the September election, Martin Schulz, was equally gloomy.
"This is a difficult day for the SPD and a difficult day for me personally. It’s my home state where we suffered a bitter defeat. We lost an important state election," he told reporters.
Merkel, whose re-election hopes earlier this year seemed to be uncertain due to the initial popularity of Schulz when he took over the SPD leadership, managed to revive her fortunes over the last two months with a victory in Saarland on March 26 and an upset defeat of the ruling SPD in Schleswig-Holstein.
The CDU unseated the SPD in NRW in May 2005, prompting a snap federal election. The conservatives won the national election, giving Merkel her first term as chancellor.
The SPD has ruled NRW for 46 of the last 51 years. The CDU only ruled in NRW for five years during that half century, from 2005 until 2010.