- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2012

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party suffered a defeat in a key state election Sunday, showing dwindling support for the conservative leader at home amid political and economic upheaval across Europe.

The big winner in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia was the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who won 39 percent of the vote, exit polls and early official returns show. The victory allows SPD to form a coalition state government with the Greens, who took 12 percent.

Mrs. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) took 26 percent, a 9 percent loss over 2010 and the lowest percentage for the party in 60 years. Analysts said that result could be repeated in next year’s national elections.

“It only has symbolic meaning, but it counts in politics,” said Jurgen Falter, a professor of political science at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. “It is a [big] deal with North Rhine-Westphalia. [The results are] interpreted as [mini] federal elections and as a symbol of what’s coming.”

CDU’s losses follow disappointing results for the party in May 6 elections in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, where voters punished the CDU’s coalition government with the pro-business Free Democratic Party and handed control to the Social Democrats.

Analysts say the results could affect Mrs. Merkel’s standing in Europe as she tries to impose austerity measures on her European Union partners.

“It will be sold across Europe as part of the wave of political opposition to austerity measures and budgetary matters,” said Ben Tonra, a professor of European politics at University College Dublin. “It will be seen as politically undermining her position on a European level.”

Mrs. Merkel has been the driving force behind austerity measures aimed at bringing financial stability to the continent and easing Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.

While the approach seemed to have been popular among German taxpayers, who see themselves as funding the bailout of their neighbors, large numbers of Greek and French voters rebelled against austerity in May 6 elections and chose parties that oppose such measures.

But there is backlash against austerity in certain German states, which are still struggling with falling tax revenue and rising budget deficits. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the governing coalition collapsed after a budget dispute in March.

Afterward, Mrs. Merkel told the 13 million voters there that they now had a chance to elect a responsible government that wouldn’t increase the debt.

The strengthening of the Social Democrats could signal a stronger push for growth programs to be included in the European fiscal treaty currently being negotiated at the federal parliament.

Meanwhile, the widely popular Pirate Party exceeded expectations, winning almost 8 percent and entering the state parliament for the first time, the upstart party’s fourth legislative win since September.

“It is a mixture of protest votes and the youth movement and disappointment in the other parties,” said Roland Sturm, a political scientist at Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen.

In addition, the Free Democratic Party, the junior party in the national coalition government, did better than expected, winning 8.3 percent of the vote to take seats in the state parliament.

Since forming a coalition with the CDU, the Free Democratic Party has seen its support fall sharply, prompting fears it could be driven out of the national parliament and force Mrs. Merkel’s party to either find a stronger partner or join with the SPD in a repeat of the “grand coalition” that collapsed and brought Mrs. Merkel to power in 2005.

Janelle Dumalaon in Berlin contributed to this report.

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