Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives won a surprise victory on Sunday in regional elections in Germany’s most populous state, giving Europe’s most powerful leader a big boost in the run-up to national elections in September.
The Christian Democrats took control of North Rhine-Westphalia from their Social Democrat rivals, dealing a heavy blow to SPD leader Martin Schulz as he bids to unseat Ms Merkel in Berlin.
Meanwhile, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party failed to achieve its target, leaving the populist right in Europe with another electoral setback following National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s defeat in France last week.
According to estimates based on partial results, the CDU won 33 per cent in Sunday’s vote, well up on the 26 per cent they scored in the last election in 2012. Campaigning in a traditional party stronghold, the SPD saw its vote plunge from 39 per cent to 31.5 per cent, its worst-ever result.
“We had a following wind from Berlin,” said Hermann Gröhe, the CDU health minister and a close ally of the chancellor. “There was no following wind [for the SPD] from Mr Schulz.”
Mr Schulz tried to rally his supporters, urging them to put the defeat behind them and look forward to the national election. “For me personally, it’s a difficult day,” he said.
The CDU’s victory came amid a late rally, in which Ms Merkel’s reputation as Europe’s stability anchor is widely thought to have played a central role. As late as March, the SPD seemed set for a comfortable victory after Mr Schulz, the former European Parliament head, took over the party in January and galvanised support.
But doubts began to set in for SPD officials in North Rhine-Westphalia, an important region that includes the Ruhr industrial belt, after the Social Democrats lost votes in Saarland in western Germany and in Schleswig-Holstein in the north. The CDU used Ms Merkel as the focus of its campaign and criticised the local SPD-led government for alleged failures on crime, education, ageing infrastructure, and reviving the economy after the decline of coal and steel.
Hannelore Kraft, the SPD’s popular chief minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, resigned as regional Social Democrat leader. Analysts said she had outshone Armin Laschet, her lacklustre CDU challenger, in the campaign, but could not overcome the advantage the CDU drew from Ms Merkel.
Mr Laschet said: “I am glad to have achieved a good result with pro-European politics against anti-European populists.”
The CDU now has three possible options in forming a ruling local coalition: a “Grand Coalition” with the SPD, as there is in the national government in Berlin; an administration formed with the liberal Free Democrats; or a more complicated three-way combination with the Greens, the SPD’s existing coalition partners, and the FDP.
The FDP took 12.6 per cent of the vote and the Greens 6.3 per cent.
The turnout was sharply up at 65.5 per cent as a greater number of mainstream voters went to the polls than five years ago, stirred by concerns about populist successes, including the AfD’s emergence, as well as the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US.
The AfD, which had been recording as much as 11 per cent in opinion polls in the region and was aiming to win 10 per cent, secured only 7.7 per cent. With the waning of the refugee crisis, which saw 1.3m asylum-seekers arrive in Germany in 2015-16, the dispute-torn party is struggling to retain support. However, it cleared the 5 per cent hurdle for entering the regional assembly and will now be represented in 13 of Germany’s 16 states.
Despite slipping in opinion polls, it remains on track to become the first far-right party since 1945 to enter the national parliament. In the latest national survey published by the Emnid agency on Saturday, it scored 8 per cent. The CDU was on 37 per cent, well ahead of the SPD on 27 per cent, leaving Mr Schulz a mountain to climb.