DUESSELDORF, Germany — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives suffered a crushing defeat yesterday in an election in Germany’s most populous state, a result which could embolden the left opposition to step up its criticism of 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 election in which Merkel is expected to fight for a third term.
She 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.
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 yesterday could propel her to national prominence.
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 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.”
The blow comes only two days before France’s new president, Socialist Francois Hollande, is due to visit Berlin and press Merkel for a shift away from austerity and more emphasis on growth-oriented measures in Europe.
Other big countries like Italy also want Merkel to take a more balanced approach to the debt crisis and an election in Greece last week showed massive public resistance to tough austerity.
Hollande’s victory, coupled with the NRW result, is bound to give the SPD, which still trails Merkel in national opinion polls, new momentum before the federal vote in the autumn of 2013.
The chancellor needs the support of her rivals to pass a new “fiscal compact” that is meant to anchor budget discipline across the EU. The SPD is already pressing her to delay a parliamentary vote on the pact, keen for her to commit to new growth measures beforehand. — Reuters