Berlin - Chancellor Angela Merkel's party suffered a severe defeat on
Sunday in a pivotal German state vote likely to award her main rivals a
major boost in their bid to soften her austerity drive in Europe.
16 months before national elections, the snap poll in the state of
North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous with 18 million people,
is closely watched as a taste of things to come at federal level.
Germans nationally back Merkel and her tough stance on European belt
tightening and debt reduction, voters in NRW handed her conservatives
their worst ever result in the western state.
Democatic Union (CDU) won just over 26%, according to preliminary
results, while the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD) took 39% in
NRW, home to the Ruhr industrial heartland.
The result is a
further blow to Merkel, a week after her strategy for fighting the
eurozone crisis took a hit in Greek and French votes, prompting her to
warn against "growth on credit".
It also comes two days before
she hosts French president-elect Francois Hollande who campaigned on a
pledge to renegotiate the eurozone's fiscal pact for tighter budgetary
rigour which Merkel argues is essential to underpin the continent's
The SPD has echoed calls by Hollande to place
more emphasis on growth in the fiscal pact and Merkel, who needs a
two-thirds majority in parliament to ratify the fiscal pact, will
therefore need opposition support.
"We put people at the centre,"
the SPD's incumbent state premier Hannelore Kraft said, who looked set
to form another coalition with the ecologist Green party but, this time,
with a majority.
The Greens scored 11.5%, according to the
preliminary results, while the upstart Pirate party continued its
winning streak with more than seven percent.
enables the party which campaigns on a platform of more transparency in
the political process and internet freedom to enter the state
parliament, its fourth entry into a regional parliament since September.
up a success in the vote was Merkel's pro-business coalition partners
at the federal level, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which confirmed a
reversal of its fortunes, after a string of humiliating defeats.
on the heels of its better-than-expected result last Sunday in
Schleswig-Holstein state, the FDP took about 8.4%, significantly better
than the around three percent it is polling nationally.
defeat is bitter and it really hurts," said the CDU's main contender
Norbert Roettgen, who is also Merkel's environment minister.
had faced off against Kraft in the poll, which was triggered after the
minority state government unexpectedly fell when the regional parliament
failed to pass a draft budget after just 22 months in power.
had argued the need for public savings but also focused on jobs,
education and nursery places, while Roettgen took aim at the SPD
contender for clocking up public debt.
Roettgen's campaign ran
into trouble when he failed to commit to staying in opposition in the
region if he lost Sunday's vote. He later had to backtrack after
reportedly irking party allies by saying the NRW vote was a referendum
on Merkel's policy on Europe.
The Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper said Kraft had won over people with her social policy.
"That she further increased the deficit despite growing revenues, people did not hold against her, quite the opposite,
"Obviously, the message from Duesseldorf to Berlin, is that the citizens are tired of the drive for consolidation," it said.
vote was the third regional election in Germany in eight weeks and
comes a week after Merkel's centre-right coalition lost power in the
state of Schleswig-Holstein.
Merkel plans to fight for a third term in elections due in late 2013.
historically plays a big role in federal politics - in 2005, a lost
vote in the state prompted then chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to call a
snap federal election which saw Merkel wrest power from him.