Electoral defeat for Merkel's party


German chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives suffered a crushing defeat today in an election in Germany's most populous state.

The election in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), a western German state with a bigger population than The Netherlands and an economy the size of Turkey, was held 18 months before a national election in which Dr Merkel is expected to fight for a third term.

According to first projections, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) won 38.8 per cent of the vote and will have enough to form a stable majority with the Greens, who scored 12.2 per cent.

The two left-leaning parties had run a fragile minority government for the past two years under popular SPD leader Hannelore Kraft, whose decisive victory today could propel her to national prominence.

Ms Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) saw their support plunge to just 25.8 per cent, down from nearly 35 per cent in 2010, and the worst result in the state since the second World War Two.

The result could embolden the left opposition to step up its criticism of her European austerity policies. Dr Merkel remains popular in Germany for her steady handling of the euro zone debt crisis, but the sheer scale of her party's defeat leaves her vulnerable at a time when a backlash against her insistence on fiscal discipline is building across Europe.

The result is likely to bolster SPD fortunes nationwide. Ms Kraft, who has run a fragile minority government with the Greens for two years, has won over voters by promising a go-slowly approach to cutting North Rhine-Westphalia's €180 billion debt, dodging accusations of fiscal mismanagement by the CDU.

The vote in North Rhine-Westphalia follows elections in Greece, France and Italy that highlighted a growing backlash against austerity.