Merkel's party snatches state from rivals in crushing election win

Germany's Social Democrat chief Martin Schulz acknowledged on May 15 that his party faced a "rocky road" to national elections, after it was soundly beaten in a key state by Chancellor Angela Merkel's party.

It is also the home state of Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic challenger seeking to deny Merkel a fourth term in the September 24 national election.

Party, the Christian democratic Union, whose leader is Angela Merkel, won the local elections in North Rhine - Westphalia, where previously the authorities were social Democrats.

FDP leader Christian Lindner seized on the party's 12.1 percent vote as signalling its comeback after the party was bounced out of the federal Parliament in Berlin following the last national poll in 2013.

CDU won 33 percent of the vote, gaining around 6 percentage points since the last election, while the SPD won about 31.5 percent, having lost nearly 8 percent point since 2012.

National polls show the Social Democrats trailing Merkel's conservatives by up to 10 points after drawing level earlier this year. The CDU only ruled in NRW for five years during that half century, from 2005 until 2010. They gave the Greens — the junior coalition partners in the outgoing state government, only 6 percent.

Schulz, who's challenging Merkel on a platform of greater income equality, saw his party defeated in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Sunday in the last test before the national ballot.

"This is a hard day for the Social Democrats, a hard day for me personally as well", Mr. Schulz told reporters in Berlin.

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Within minutes of the polls closing, the state's governor resigned, saying she took "personal responsibility for the defeat".

The SPD has rejected the option of ruling with the Greens and the Left, a party that has also been rejected as partners by the Conservatives. Merkel said her party would now gear up for the national campaign.

The SPD's national leader and its candidate for chancellor in the September election, Martin Schulz, was equally gloomy.

With a fifth of Germans - 13.1 million - eligible to vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, an election in the western state is always closely watched for hints to the federal outlook.

The CDU won around 34 percent, up from 26.3 percent in 2012, according to an exit poll on public broadcaster ARD just after polls closed. But defeats in two other state elections since late March punctured the party's euphoria over Schulz's nomination.

"If she loses, it would mean that the Schulz train has slammed against a wall", the weekly Spiegel magazine said.

However, with a win for mainstream candidate Mark Rutte in Holland's election earlier this year, and the victory of Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen in France last week, Germany's incumbent could be well positioned for a ride through to her fourth term.

The populist AfD (Alternative for Germany), which has railed against the migration influx, hopes to win its first seats in North Rhine-Westphalia, which would give it seats in 13 of 16 state parliaments.

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