Merkel reeling as voters take revenge for hardline policies
THE German Chancellor Angela Merkel had hoped to kick out a weak Red-Green coalition in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia but the region's 13 million voters have decided otherwise.
According to exit polls, the Social Democrats have won 39pc of the vote, enough to form a stable majority with the Greens, who scored 12pc.
Ms Merkel's Christian Democrats saw their support plunge to just 26pc, down from nearly 35pc in 2010.
The defeat follows elections rejecting austerity policies in Greece, France and Italy, severely weakening Ms Merkel's hand at her first talks with Francois Hollande, the new French President, in Berlin tomorrow.
In a contest that mirrored the debate in the eurozone between "growth" and austerity, she presented the vote as a battle between "thrifty" Christian Democrats and "ever more debt" run up by the Left.
The rejection of her austerity economics at home will strengthen Mr Hollande's demand that the fiscal pact reached by all EU states, with the exception of Britain and the Czech Republic, should be redrafted.
The Berlin meeting, taking place just hours after the Paris inauguration of France's first Socialist president for two decades, will be tense as Mr Hollande demands a rethink of policies closely associated with Ms Merkel and Germany.
Benoit Hamon, the French Socialist Party spokesman, yesterday directly challenged Ms Merkel's authority to lead the eurozone.
"We didn't vote for an EU president called Mrs Merkel, who makes sovereign decisions for the rest of us," he said. "We want to renegotiate this pact. Austerity led Greece into failure."
North Rhine-Westphalia, or "NRW", is Germany's most populous state, with a large share of the German economy and a history of setting trends in national politics.
Norbert Roettgen, Germany's environment minister and a protege of Ms Merkel, nicknamed "Mummy's brightest", fought a clumsy Christian Democrat campaign on the issue of fiscal responsibility versus high spending. He even held his election rallies alongside a giant inflatable "debt mountain" to emphasise the fiscal irresponsibility of the Social Democrats.
"Do we have a thrift crisis in Europe or a debt crisis?" he demanded.
But he horrified the chancellor by telling voters they would decide "whether Merkel's course in Europe is strengthened or whether it is weakened by the re-election of a pro-debt government in Germany".
Ms Merkel has been forced to deny that the vote was a popular verdict on her euro policy. "Sunday's election is an important state election for North Rhine-Westphalia, no more and no less," she told 'Ruhr Nachrichten' newspaper.
Hannelore Kraft, the popular Social Democrat governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, had triggered the early elections in order to get a majority for an austerity-busting budget.
Her victory will help Social Democrats after they last week delayed Germany's ratification of the "fiskalpakt" treaty in support of the Socialist French President. The defeat is the worst in 50 years for Christian Democrats in regional elections in Schleswig-Holstein. (© Daily Telegraph, London)