Austerity blow for Merkel in German state election
By Stephen Brown
DUESSELDORF, Germany | Sun May 13, 2012 10:13pm EDT
(Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives suffered a crushing defeat on Sunday in an election in Germany's most populous state, a result which could embolden the left opposition to step up attacks on her European austerity policies.
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 vote in which Merkel will be fighting for a third term.
While she remains popular at home because of the strength of the economy and her steady handling of the euro zone debt crisis, the sheer scale of the defeat in NRW leaves her vulnerable at a time when a backlash against her insistence on fiscal discipline is building across Europe.
According to first projections, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) won 38.9 percent of the vote and will have enough to form a stable majority with the Greens.
Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) saw their support plunge to just 26.3 percent, down from nearly 35 percent in 2010, and the worst result in the state since World War Two.
"This is not a good evening for Merkel," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "The SPD is strengthened by this election, which will stir things up in Berlin."