The centre-left Social Democrats and Greens — Germany’s main opposition parties — won combined support of about 51% in the election in North Rhine-Westphalia state, according to exit polls.
That would be enough to give them a majority in the state legislature, which they narrowly missed in the last regional election two years ago. Support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats was seen dropping to 26% from more than 34%, their worst showing in the state since the Second World War.
But the pro-market Free Democrats, Merkel’s struggling partners in the national government, performed respectably — polling more than 8% to buck speculation that they might fail to win seats.
The incumbent government of popular governor Hannelore Kraft had been favoured to win, particularly after a much-criticised and sometimes gaffe- prone campaign by conservative challenger Norbert Roettgen, Merkel’s federal environment minister.
The vote came as Germany starts looking toward national elections due late next year.
“This is a crashing defeat for Mrs Merkel and her minister,” said Andrea Nahles, the Social Democrats’ general secretary.
“The defeat is bitter, it is clear and it really hurts,” a crestfallen Mr Roettgen said minutes after the polls closed, announcing that he would give up the leadership of the Christian Democrats’ local branch.
“This is, above all, my personal defeat,” he said.
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.
Merkel said then that it offered an opportunity for the region to elect a government that wouldn’t take on “ever more debt”.
While national polls show that Germans support Merkel’s pro-austerity stance in Europe, prominent Christian Democrat Peter Hintze said that voters in North Rhine-Westphalia viewed budget issues as “abstract”.
Mr Roettgen irritated his party by declaring the election would decide “whether Angela Merkel’s course in Europe is strengthened or whether it is weakened by the re- election of a pro-debt government in Germany”.