May 7, 2017 / 4:14 PM / 3 months ago

Merkel's conservatives thump rivals in German regional vote

Daniel Guenther, top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) reacts on first exit polls after the Schleswig-Holstein regional state elections in Kiel, Germany, May 7, 2017.Fabian Bimmer

BERLIN/KIEL, Germany (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives won a decisive victory over their Social Democrat (SPD) rivals in a vote in Germany's northern state of Schleswig-Holstein on Sunday, boosting her prospects of winning a national election in September.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) fetched 33 percent of the vote in Schleswig-Holstein, up from 30.8 percent in the last election there in 2012, projected results for broadcaster ARD showed. The SPD won 26.2 percent, down from 30.4 percent.

The result leaves the CDU short of sufficient support to rule alone in the state, but means the SPD cannot continue to govern in coalition with the Greens and the South Schleswig Party (SSW), which represents the ethnic Danish minority.

"I am disappointed," said the Social Democrats' national leader, Martin Schulz, whose party has now suffered two regional election defeats to Merkel's conservatives this year.

"This is a big success for the CDU," he added.

The SPD enjoyed a revival in the opinion polls early this year after nominating former European Parliament president Schulz in January as its candidate to run against Merkel.

But the "Schulz effect" failed to deliver in the western state of Saarland, where his party flopped in a March poll.

The result in Schleswig-Holstein, a region of 2.3 million voters that juts north of Hamburg and borders Denmark, is an even bigger blow for the Social Democrats because they have been the main ruling party there since 2012.

"The Schulz locomotive has gone from 100 to 0 in only two state elections," said senior CDU politician Jens Spahn. "The hot air of the SPD party congress has little to do with reality in the country."

Should the SPD be unable to form a coalition government with other parties in Schleswig-Holstein, it will be the first time since 2012 the party has lost power in a state election.

The Greens won 13.3 percent of the vote in the state, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) 11.5 percent and the SSW 3.5 percent. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has recently been losing support after a bout of infighting, scored only 5.6 percent.

Daniel Guenther, top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) reacts on first exit polls after the Schleswig-Holstein regional state elections in Kiel, Germany, May 7, 2017.Fabian Bimmer

The CDU's lead candidate in Schleswig-Holstein, Daniel Guenther, when asked about coalition options, said he was ruling nothing out but that he was closest to the FDP and always ready to talk to the Greens, raising the possibility of a black-yellow-green so-called 'Jamaica coalition', alluding to Jamaica's national flag.

In a fractured national political landscape, such diverse coalition scenarios could also come into play after September's federal election. Merkel's conservatives share power at national level with the SPD and neither wants to continue the arrangement.

Third Test Looms

Slideshow (10 Images)

A third regional vote, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) next Sunday, offers Merkel's conservatives a chance to defeat the incumbent SPD again and build momentum in her bid to win a fourth term in office in September.

SPD Secretary General Katarina Barley said the Schleswig-Holstein vote was a "bitter result" for the Social Democrats, but hoped her party would fare better next Sunday in NRW, traditionally an SPD stronghold .

"That will be a different game altogether," she said of NRW.

Merkel, who won the endorsement of former U.S. president Barack Obama on a farewell to Berlin visit last November, is presenting herself to voters as a crisis manager and Europe's anchor of stability.

Schulz has responded with a focus on fighting inequality, trying to sharpen the SPD's policy edge, which has been blunted by spending seven of the last 11 years sharing power as junior coalition partners with Merkel's CDU at the national level.

That arrangement turned voters off the two big parties and fed the rise of the AfD last year.

The FDP's candidate Wolfgang Kubicki said Sunday's result showed the SPD would have to broaden its election platform if it wanted to topple Merkel in the federal election in September.

"The Social Democrats have to become more innovative than just offering their slogan of fairness, fairness, fairness", he said.

Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Angus macSwan/Richard Lough/Susan Fenton

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