Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives have suffered a heavy defeat in regional elections in Germany’s most populous state.
According to preliminary results, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) won 38.9 per cent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, a western German state of more than 13 million people, and looked set to form a coalition with the Greens.
Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) saw their support slide to just 26.3 per cent, down from nearly 35 per cent in 2010, in a state that includes the cities of Cologne and Duesseldorf and the industrial Ruhr region.
“This is not a good evening for Merkel,” Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, said.
“The SPD is strengthened by this election, which will stir things up in Berlin.”
“People don’t want us to make hard cuts in social funding, what we want is a ‘New Deal’ where both the social welfare state and fighting debt will work.“
-Erik Floegge, a student in the city of Duesseldorf
The victory could embolden the German left to step up attacks against Merkel over her support for European austerity policies 18 months before national elections in which she is expected to fight for a third term.
The election is the third state-level vote this year and comes a week after a coalition of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and pro-market Free Democrats – the parties that make up the national government – lost power in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.
The Free Democrats enjoyed a rebound in support in North Rhine-Westphalia, gaining 8.3 per cent of the vote to secure a return to the state assembly.
The Pirate Party, which campaigns for internet freedom and shot onto the national stage last year, continued a strong run at regional level, making it into the fourth straight state parliament with 7.8 per cent of the vote.
North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional centre-left stronghold, voted three years ahead of schedule after its current minority government, made up of Germany’s main national opposition parties, narrowly failed to get a budget passed in March.
Elections in the region have a history of influencing national politics. Seven years ago, a humiliating loss for then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats in the state prompted him to call an early election, which he lost to Merkel.
|Al Jazeera’s Nick Spicer reports from Berlin
The result will be seen by some as a double defeat for Merkel. Voters not only rejected her party but also the austerity measures that she has forced on struggling southern European states such as Greece, Spain and Portugal.
“The question arising from this election is whether people still follow Merkel’s way of doing politics in Germany,” Erik Floegge, 26, a student and SPD supporter in the city of Duesseldorf, said.
“People don’t want us to make hard cuts in social funding, what we want is a ‘New Deal’ where both the social welfare state and fighting debt will work.”
Opinion polls show, however, that a majority of Germans back Merkel’s focus on debt reduction and that many don’t want her to soften her stance towards struggling euro partners.
In the lower house, Merkel needs the emboldened Social Democrats’ support to win a two-thirds majority for the European budget-discipline pact she has pushed, and the win gives the opposition more negotiating power.
While Germany’s left will draw encouragement from the Social Democrat’s performance, national opinion polls suggest divisions within the country could lead to inconclusive national elections in 2014, with neither Merkel’s Christian Union nor the Social Democrats and Greens, who governed in coalition from 1998 to 2005, gaining a parliamentary majority.