German election: Merkel's CDU wins big in regional election

The result suggested many voters in Saarland were frightened by talk of a "red-red" coalition between the SPD and the far-left Linke party, which scored about 13%.

Political scientist Robert Vehrkamp of the Bertelsmann Foundation noted that strong turnout of around 70 per cent had transformed what was forecast as a tight race into a show of force for the CDU. She said the prospect of a SPD-Left coalition had mobilized conservative voters. The Social Democrats received 29.6 percent of the vote.

The Left Party, born from the merger a decade ago of ex-communists with other left-wingers and relatively strong in Saarland, won 12.9 percent.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which bruised Merkel in regional elections previous year after her decision in 2015 to open Germany's doors to migrants from the Middle East, won 6.2 percent of the vote in Saarland.

But her popularity took a hit recently when nationalists slammed her decision to open the country's border to more than 1 million Syrian and other refugees fleeing war and hardship in the Middle East and other global hot spots.

The Greens did not meet the 5 percent threshold required to enter the state assembly.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, State Minister-President and top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union Party reacts after the Saarland state elections in Saarbruecken, Germany, March 26, 2017.

Saarland is the first of three regions to vote ahead of the Sept 24 federal vote. He's offering a classic though often vague center-left pitch of tackling economic inequality at home.

"The CDU in Saarland had a clear message when it came to ... whom to form a coalition with, and this contributed to the good result", Merkel said, visibly energized and upbeat after a meeting with CDU officials at party headquarters in Berlin.

A loss for Kramp-Karrenbauer would have been a worrying signal for the CDU's national campaign and for two bigger state elections in May - in Schleswig-Holstein and Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, both now led by the Social Democrats.

Schulz conceded it was "not a nice evening" and that "the CDU clearly won" but insisted that "our goal is a change of federal government" this year, calling the campaign until then "a marathon, not a sprint".

Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, admitted today that the result had been a bitter disappointment just a week after SPD delegates unanimously elected him party chairman. They might become the third largest party in the general election.

"Lafontaine is a polarising figure even in big swathes of the SPD and that surely didn't help us", Maas told ZDF television.

  • Zachary Reyes