German leader's party swamped in key state election

Voters in Germany's most populous state inflicted an embarrassingly heavy defeat on Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives Sunday.

Angela Merkel's conservatives embarrassed in North Rhine-Westphalia

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats are facing defeat in a major state vote Sunday, according to recent polls. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Voters in Germany's most populous state inflicted an embarrassingly heavy defeat on Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives Sunday and strengthened a regional government that the German leader's party had portrayed as irresponsibly spendthrift.

The outcome boosted Germany's centre-left opposition, and was a bitter pill to swallow for Merkel's Christian Democrats as the country looks toward national elections due late next year and the chancellor grapples with Europe's stubbornly persistent debt crisis.  

The centre-left Social Democrats and Greens — Germany's main opposition parties — won combined support of 50.4 per cent in the election in North Rhine-Westphalia. That gave them a majority in the state legislature, which they narrowly missed in the last regional election two years ago.   

Support for Merkel's party plunged to 26.3 per cent from 34.6 percent in 2010, its worst showing in the state since the Second World War.

Social Democratic Party (SPD) supporters react to exit polls for the North Rhine-Westphalia (NWR) federal state election in Duesseldorf. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

The incumbent government of popular Gov. Hannelore Kraft had been favoured to win, particularly after a much-criticized and sometimes gaffe-prone campaign by conservative challenger Norbert Roettgen, Merkel's federal environment minister. The vote came as Germany starts looking toward national elections due late next year.

"This is a crashing defeat for Mrs. Merkel and her minister," Andrea Nahles, the Social Democrats' general secretary, told ARD television. "The likelihood has become significantly greater that the next chancellor will be a Social Democrat."

"The defeat is bitter, it is clear and it really hurts," a crestfallen Roettgen said minutes after the polls closed, announcing that he would give up the leadership of the Christian Democrats' local branch. "This is, above all, my personal defeat."

North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional centre-left stronghold, voted three years ahead of schedule after its current minority government, comprising Germany's main national opposition parties, narrowly failed to get a budget passed in March. 

Merkel said then that it offered an opportunity for the region to elect a government that wouldn't take on "ever more debt." 

Budget issues 'abstract'

While national polls show that Germans support Merkel's pro-austerity stance in Europe, prominent Christian Democrat Peter Hintze said Sunday that voters in North Rhine-Westphalia viewed budget issues as "abstract."

During the campaign, Roettgen faced criticism for not committing himself to stay in state-level politics and for saying on a television show, in an apparent attempt at irony which backfired, that "regrettably" voters rather than his party would decide whether he became governor.

Roettgen irritated his party by declaring that Sunday's election would decide "whether Angela Merkel's course in Europe is strengthened or whether it is weakened by the re-election of a pro-debt government in Germany." Merkel said it was an important state election, "no more and no less."

The result may help stabilize the struggling Free Democrats, who can build on a surprisingly strong performance last weekend in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein after a string of miserable results over the past year.

Projections showed the upstart Pirate Party, which has surged in recent months with a platform of near-total transparency and internet freedom but lacks policies on many issues — including the debt crisis — entering its fourth state legislature with support of about 7.5 per cent. Voters gave the hard-left Left Party, which has thrived as a voice of protest over recent years, less than three per cent, ejecting them from the local parliament.

Setback for Merkel

Sunday's election came a week after Schleswig-Holstein voted out a regional centre-right coalition comprising the same parties as the national government, but failed to hand the main opposition parties a majority. It also follows setbacks for Merkel's austerity-led response to the eurozone debt crisis in French and Greek elections last weekend.

Sunday's election — unlike North Rhine-Westphalia's last vote in 2010 — won't change the national balance of power.

Two years ago, Merkel's coalition lost the state after five years in power there. That erased the national government's majority in the upper house of parliament, which represents Germany's 16 states, and its position there has since weakened further.

Current national polls consistently show Merkel's conservatives as the biggest party. However, they forecast a parliamentary majority neither for her centre-right coalition — which has become notorious for infighting on a wide range of policy issues —nor for the Social Democrats and Greens, who ran Germany from 1998 to 2005.

That suggests Merkel's chances of holding on to power are still decent when the national election comes, though perhaps with a new coalition partner.