German state election deals blow to Angela Merkel’s party

DUESSELDORF, Germany — Voters in Germany’s most populous state dealt a decisive blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union on Sunday, preliminary results show, a potentially ominous preview of things to come for the chancellor in next year’s federal elections.

Merkel’s party mustered about 26% of the vote in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a drop from 35% in 2010 and 45% in 2005, the year she took office, the results show. The opposition Social Democrats and Greens, at about 39% and more than 11%, respectively, secured the majority of seats they needed to form a governing coalition.

The upstart Pirate Party, a group primarily devoted to Internet freedom, rode its recent surge in popularity to a nearly 8% vote share and won entry into its fourth consecutive state parliament. Merkel’s national coalition partner, the Free Democrats, managed a better-than-expected 8%, above the 5% threshold needed for representation, while the far-left Left Party was kicked out of the statehouse with less than 3% of the vote. Other parties with low shares accounted for the remaining votes.

Election results in North Rhine-Westphalia have been harbingers of change in the past. It was a loss in this state in 2005 that brought down the chancellorship of Merkel’s predecessor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder. Now, the state that allowed Merkel to assume power in the first place could undermine her quest for a third term.

The disappointing result for the conservative parties in North Rhine-Westphalia follows a similarly poor showing a week ago in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the governing Christian Democrat-Free Democrat coalition was ousted.

But the North Rhine-Westphalia election is particularly significant, both because of the state’s importance in Germany — over a fifth of the country’s population resides here — and because the campaign was largely framed as a referendum on Merkel’s austerity policies.

The Christian Democrats’ candidate for governor, Norbert Roettgen, who serves as Merkel’s environment minister and is often mentioned as a potential successor to the chancellor, announced late Sunday that he would resign as the local party chief.

On the campaign trail, Roettgen hammered at the need for budgetary restraint and criticized what he labeled the free-spending ways of the current governor, Social Democrat Hannelore Kraft, whose deficit-raising budget proposal brought down her minority government and forced Sunday’s election.

Merkel’s opponents, however, tried to ride the wave of anti-austerity sentiment sweeping across Europe. In recent weeks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, both close allies of Merkel, have been pushed from power, and parties supporting austerity policies lost ground in Greek elections.

“Whoever’s campaign Merkel supports loses: Jost de Jager, Sarkozy, and now Roettgen is facing the same fate,” Green Party parliamentary Chairman Juergen Trittin said recently. De Jager was the losing candidate in the Schleswig-Holstein election.

Merkel has so far stuck to her message of the need for austerity cuts to relieve Europe’s debt crisis. But she has become increasingly isolated.

Polling had shown the Social Democrats to be the overwhelming favorite to capture the most votes in Sunday’s race in North Rhine-Westphalia. But the Christian Democrats were hoping to deny the Social Democrats and Greens a majority and thereby force a so-called grand coalition between Christian and Social Democrats.

A grand coalition on the national level is a realistic possibility after next year’s federal elections. The Christian Democrats remain the most popular party nationwide, but the Free Democrats have suffered such a collapse that a continuation of the current governing coalition is unlikely. And by attracting a sizable portion of the youth vote, the Pirate Party could prevent the Social Democrats and Greens from forming a national majority.

Wiener is a special correspondent.