Merkel Pivots to General Election With Boost From Regional Votes

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has won the regional elections in Germany's most populous state, exit polls suggest, boosting its hopes of retaining power in September's national vote. In an echo of Merkel's second-term coalition at the national level, the CDU can now form a state government with the pro-market Free Democrats, who surged 4 points to 12.6 percent.

Voters in North Rhine-Westphalia Sunday handed Schulz's SPD just 31.2 percent, sharply less than the 39.1 percent it garnered five years ago, final results showed.

Support for the Greens nearly halved to 6.4 percent, while the liberal Free Democratic Party gained four percentage points to 12.6 percent.

The nationalist Alternative for Germany won 7.4%, giving it seats in its 13th state legislature.

German media is asking whether Merkel has already dealt a knock-out blow to her opposition party, the Social Democrat party (SPD), in the run-up to the country's national election.

After a blaze of publicity earlier this year, Mr Schulz - who chose not to join the government when he returned to Germany after being president of the European Parliament - has struggled to maintain a high profile. Party leader Martin Schulz said it was a "hard day".

While Schulz now holds no public office besides SPD chief and thus has no natural platform beyond the stump, Merkel'office provides her with the best stage to burnish her reputation as Germany's Stabilitätsanker (anchor of stability) in an unstable world. The chancellor, meanwhile, hailed the strong victory in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) on May 14 and vowed to do "everything we can" to ensure that her party also prevails in general elections set for September 24.

"I'm an experienced election fighter", he declared.The loss is also a personal setback for Schulz as North Rhine Westphalia is his home state and where he served in municipal politics. The SPD now rules in coalition with the Greens who have been doing poorly in recent polls.

So although the concrete issues that shaped this election were primarily regional - such as schools, transport and security - this state also matters nationally.

In the first four hours of voting, 34 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, up from 29 percent at the same time in 2012. "We are aware that this new phase will be an exhausting one", she said, but added that the grand right-left coalition led by her party has a good record to show.

Mr Schulz is hoping that his push for "social justice" will resonate in North Rhine-Westphalia, which has lagged behind western Germany economically.

In the North Rhine-Westphalia campaign, Merkel's conservatives sought to portray Kraft's government as slack on security, and also assailed what they said is regional authorities' poor handling of education and infrastructure projects. "So that we can forget those 50 plus years that the SPD is in power", said one older man.

With its sprawling industrial region and support from workers, NRW has been an SPD stronghold for decades - but that all could change by Sunday evening.

  • Zachary Reyes