Merkel's party wins key German state election, boosting hopes of national win

An election in Germany's most populous state is serving as a prelude to September's national vote and could give conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel new momentum in her quest for a fourth term - or offer her centre -left challenger some relief.

It is home to 17.9 million people, almost a quarter of Germany's population, and is also the home state of Merkel's Social Democratic challenger in the September 24 national election, Martin Schulz — though he wasn't on the ballot Sunday.

Preliminary results showed Merkel's CDU receiving 33% of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, or NRW, followed by the Social Democratic Party's 31.4%.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and North Rhine-Westphalia top candidate of her Christian Democrats, Armin Laschet, wave to supporters at the last stage of the state election campaign in Aachen, Germany, Saturday, May 13, 2017.

Projections show clear win for the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia election.

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

The SPD fell to 30.5 percent from 39.1 percent.

Another option for Laschet is a tie-up with his party's traditional allies, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), a coalition which would have a thin parliamentary majority.

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

The two will meet on Monday afternoon, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Friday, adding that further details would be released later. SPD state premier Hannelore Kraft quickly conceded defeat and said she would stand down as her party's local leader, which analysts called an attempt to shield Schulz from the fallout. "I hail from the state where we just suffered a crushing election defeat".

"Incumbents are certainly not safe - incumbents can lose", said Thomas Oppermann, the party's national parliamentary leader. It boosts her standing before a series of global summits starting this month, including meetings with US President Donald Trump.

Effect from the election of a new Social Democrat leader, former EU Parliament President Martin Schulz, appears to be on the wane after it boosted the party's rating earlier this year. A win is a great sign for Merkel ahead of the national vote in September.

Kraft announced that she was stepping down as the Social Democrats' regional leader.

"We achieved both, I thank everyone for their commitment during the last days", said the CDU's victor, Armin Laschet.

Likewise, Spiegel Online said: "Martin Schulz now needs a miracle".

Schulz defiantly asserted that the SPD is a party that knows how to fight back and noted, "The federal elections are still a long way off".

Merkel 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 a week ago.

  • Joanne Flowers