Merkel's CDU faces off against ruling SPD in key German state election

Miranda GreerMay 17, 2017

Before German elections this fall, Martin Schulz had three regional votes to prove that he and his Social Democrats could push Chancellor Angela Merkel out of office.

Analysts said the SPD's biggest problem was that Merkel had managed over her 12 years in power to pull her conservatives to the centre, making them attractive to left-wing and centrist voters who would otherwise vote SPD.

The outcome was the latest indication that initial enthusiasm for the new SPD leader, Mr Martin Schulz, could be fizzling out.

The state leader of the SDP in North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, resigned immediately in a bid to deflect the loss away from Schulz.

In the North Rhine-Westphalia campaign, Mrs Merkel's conservatives sought to portray Mrs Kraft's government as slack on security, and also assailed what they said is regional authorities' poor handling of education and infrastructure projects.

Palpable frustration over worsening traffic congestion and crime that has plagued the crowded northwestern state, which borders the Netherlands and Belgium, were the decisive factors behind the Social Democrats' sudden demise after the party had ruled there for 46 of the last 51 years.

SPD deputy Chief Ralf Stegner called it a "very dark day for the SPD" but said the game is not over.

Merkel's Christian Democratic Union gained significant ground in the state, for decades an SPD stronghold, coming in as the top party with 33 percent.

North Rhine-Westphalia was the last state to hit the polls before the general election September 24.

Because of its large industrial base and support from workers, Germany's most populous province, North Rhine-Westphalia, has been traditionally dominated by the Social Democrats who have been in power in the state for 46 of the past 51 years.

Merkel's image as an experienced leader who can provide stability resonates with many risk-averse Germans. 34 percent of eligible voters had already cast their ballots - up from 29 percent at the same time during the last state election in 2012.

In the state's last election in 2012, the Social Democrats beat the CDU by 39.1 percent to 26.3 percent.

That would make it hard for the SPD to muster another coalition, especially as their natural partners, the hard-left Die Linke, are also on just 6 per cent.

The liberal Free Democrats, the CDU's preferred coalition partners, have bounced back to win nearly 13 per cent in NRW where the two allies are expected to have enough seats in the regional parliament to muster a majority.

In the run-up to yesterday's vote, Mr Schulz had held more than 30 rallies in the state, where he began his political career in Wuerselen.

The populist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is also looking to secure a spot in the NRW state parliament, which would see the party enter 13 out of Germany's 16 state parliaments.

She had urged voters to look at her government's economic record, noting that with 7.5 per cent unemployment, the state fares worse than the national rate of 5.8 per cent.

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