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16 May 2017, 07:18 | Cedric Leonard
A win for the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia will give serious momentum to Merkel and her party in the lead-up to the German national election in September.
The exit polls showed the Christian Democrats winning 34.5 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to 17.9 million people, almost a quarter of the German population, with the Social Democrats at 30.5 percent.
An election in Germany's biggest state is always significant, but it carries higher stakes this year, being the last regional vote before national polls and having a direct impact on whether the SPD can close the gap nationwide with the CDU.
Her party's election victory in Germany's most populous state on Sunday (May 14) highlights her backing among voters as Merkel stands up for free trade, vows to hold the European Union together and fends off Trump's attacks in a conflict over defence spending.
In the state's last election in 2012, the Social Democrats beat the CDU by 39.1 percent to 26.3 percent.
The projections put support for the pro-business Free Democrats, who are eyeing a return to the national parliament at September, at a strong 12%.
Merkel's party was thought to have been losing relevance in recent years after suffering defeat in several state elections, prompting commentators to anticipate a shift towards non-traditional parties, as seen with the rise in populism in 2016.
"Everybody said Merkel is exhausted and finished", said Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a CDU member who won re-election as Saarland state premier in March.
Christian Leye, the Left Party's top candidate in the state, noted that "the Schulz train derailed in North Rhine-Westphalia".
But surveys ahead of the vote show the centre-left party running neck-and-neck with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, with some even placing the CDU ahead. In the past, the balance of political forces in North Rhine - Westphalia has become a model for the Central government.
North Rhine-Westphalia has been governed by a center-left coalition of the SPD and the Greens since 2010, with the Social Democrat Hannelore Kraft serving as state premier.
The populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) will enter North Rhine-Westphalia's parliament for the first time, picking up 7.4%.
"It's a hard day for the SPD, a hard day for me personally", Schulz told supporters in Berlin. After this fourth state election loss since March, that now appears a distant dream. It's like Germany itself in many ways, and to have a chance at beating Merkel this year, it would have been necessary to beat her party there.
The SPD had already suffered two setbacks since Schulz took over, with the CDU scoring strong victories in the small states of Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein.
"His immediate task now will be to relaunch the so-far exclusively personality-driven SPD campaign for the Bundestag elections; the party immediately needs to start focusing on policies to widen the SPD's appeal beyond its core electorate".
Mrs Kraft announced that she was stepping down as the Social Democrats' regional leader.
Bild daily wrote that voters had rewarded local politicians who had shown they backed Merkel, and provided "something to think about" for those in the CDU who had called for her head.
"I've heard the criticism of people who say 'you're nice, but you have to get more specific.' And that's what I plan to do", Schulz told CNN affiliate ARD.
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