Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives beat their center-left rivals in a state election Sunday in Germany’s most populous region, according to projections — a major blow to Merkel’s challenger in a national election four months away.
The western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which includes Cologne, Duesseldorf and the Ruhr industrial region, has been led by the center-left Social Democrats for all but five years since 1966.
It is home to 17.9 million people, nearly a quarter of Germany’s population, and is also the home state of Merkel’s Social Democratic challenger in the Sept. 24 national election, Martin Schulz — though he wasn’t on the ballot Sunday.
Projections for ARD and ZDF public television, based on partial counting, Sunday showed Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union beating the Social Democrats by around 34.5 percent to 30.5 percent. They gave the Greens — the junior coalition partners in the outgoing state government, only 6 percent.
That means governor Hannelore Kraft’s coalition with the Greens lost its majority in the state legislature. And it puts conservative challenger Armin Laschet, a liberal-minded deputy leader of Merkel’s party, in a position to replace her.
“The CDU has won the heartland of the Social Democrats,” said the conservatives’ general secretary, Peter Tauber, calling it a great day.
“This is a really bitter day for the Social Democrats,” said his Social Democratic counterpart, Katarina Barley.
But she insisted that “the national election campaign is only beginning now.”
The Social Democrats’ national ratings soared after Schulz, a former European Parliament president, was nominated in January as Merkel’s challenger.
But poor showings in two previous state elections since then had already punctured the party’s euphoria over Schulz’s nomination.
Kraft announced that she was stepping down as the Social Democrats’ regional leader. The projected result is the party’s worst in North Rhine-Westphalia since World War II.
The projections put support for the pro-business Free Democrats, who are eyeing a return to the national parliament at September, at a strong 12 percent.
The nationalist Alternative for Germany was seen winning 7.5 percent, giving the latter seats in its 13th state legislature, and the opposition Left Party 5 percent.
The likeliest outcome is a “grand coalition” of the biggest parties under Laschet, since various other possible combinations were rejected by at least one potential partner before the election.
That would mirror Merkel’s national government, in which the Social Democrats are the junior partners.
After a blaze of publicity earlier this year, 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.
National polls show the Social Democrats trailing Merkel’s conservatives by up to 10 points after drawing level earlier this year.