Merkel's conservatives clinch victory in key state vote: exit polls

Merkel's conservatives clinch victory in key state vote: exit polls

Party, the Christian democratic Union, whose leader is Angela Merkel, won the local elections in North Rhine - Westphalia, where previously the authorities were social Democrats.

Schulz is hoping that his push for "social justice" will resonate in North Rhine-Westphalia, which has lagged behind western Germany economically. It could give conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel new momentum in her quest for a fourth term - or offer her center-left challenger some relief.

SPD head Martin Schulz, as well as Hannelore Kraft, the party's governor in North Rhine-Westphalia, reiterated during the election campaign that the state had been considered to be a traditional heartland of the SPD for nearly 50 years and labeled the vote to be a mini-election to the Bundestag.

Her party appears poised to take power in the region from the Social Democrats, who are in second at 30.5%. Conservative challenger Armin Laschet, a deputy leader of Mrs Merkel's party, was set to replace Ms Kraft.

The pro-business Free Democrats won a strong 12.6 percent of the vote Sunday after a campaign headed by their national leader, Christian Lindner.

"This is a hard day for the Social Democrats, a hard day for me personally as well", Schulz said.

But he urged the party to concentrate now on the national election.

But she insisted that "the national election campaign is only beginning now".

"The issue of fairness is, of course, very important but I am convinced that the Social Democrats are struggling with the concept of innovation and are getting things the wrong way round", she said.

In the past several months, some opinion polls have shown that Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, will have an edge over Merkel in the coming federal elections.

"We will sharpen our profile further - we have to as well".

The second victor was the charismatic, 38-year-old leader of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), Christian Lindner, his party's top candidate in the state.

"Until the general election on September 24, we have a long and stony road ahead of us", Schulz said.

Moreover, the result verifies the nationwide slide for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) which merely got 7.3% of the vote. "We've lost an important state election", said a chastened Martin Schultz, who only recently quit the European Parliament vice-presidency so he could lead the SPD in the upcoming election battle.

Kraft told ARD television she had "asked Martin Schulz to let national politics wait until the election was over". The projected result is the party's worst in North Rhine-Westphalia since World War II.

"There was no tailwind from Mr Schulz that could have balanced that out", he said.

The party has often played the role of kingmaker in the past, and even if coalition-building is expected to be more complicated than previously this year, given that more parties are slated to enter parliament, Merkel or Schulz could end up relying on the party's support after September.

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