Merkel's party wins vote in rivals' German heartland

Sunday's vote is the last state election before the federal elections set for September 24, and is seen as a vital pre-duel between Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Martin Schulz's Social Democratic Party (SPD).

The Social Democrats conceded defeat in yesterday's vote in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Sunday's elections were widely seen as a test of support for Merkel and Christian Democrats in the run-up to the national elections on September 24.

The party - whose national leader, Christian Lindner, led its election effort in North Rhine-Westphalia - has tended to ally with Mrs Merkel's conservatives over recent decades.

The Social Democrats (SPD) came in a close second, garnering 31.2% of the vote but they did go down over 7 points compared with the last election in 2012, and in their stronghold state.

Social Democrat governor Hannelore Kraft's coalition lost its majority as her junior governing partners, the Greens, took only 6.4 percent. "I am convinced that for the past seven years, step by step, we have helped this state move forward", Kraft said in the state capital, Duesseldorf.

Projections based on partial counting, showed the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) beating the Social Democrats by about 34% to a little over 30.5%.

Over 13 million of NRW's 18 million residents are eligible to vote in Sunday's election - the most registered voters than any other German state.

According to Spiegel Online magazine, the victory in North Rhine-Westphalia is a great success for Merkel.

Kraft told ARD television she had "asked Martin Schulz to let national politics wait until the election was over".

The Social Democrats (SPD) now have the North Rhine-Westphalia seat.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) will also enter North Rhine-Westphalia's parliament for the first time, after accumulating 7.7 percent of the vote.

Dumped out of parliament, for the first time since the war, if the Free Democrats can replicate yesterday's result on a national level in September, they could form another coalition with Merkel's CDU, and leave the SPD out in the cold.

SPD leader Martin Schulz admitted that the loss in his home state marked a "difficult day for the SPD" and for him personally, but urged supporters to battle on.

"We couldn't gain the trust of voters", she added.

The SPD's vote is down by 8.6% on the last election there in 2012 - while Merkel's vote is up by nearly the same amount. Merkel, whose re-election hopes earlier this year seemed to be uncertain due to the initial popularity of Schulz when he took over the SPD leadership, managed to revive her fortunes over the last two months with a victory in Saarland on March 26 and an upset defeat of the ruling SPD in Schleswig-Holstein.

The voters of North Rhine - Westphalia chose the CDU.

SPD deputy Chief Ralf Stegner called it a "very dark day for the SPD" but said the game is not over.

The issue of a potential coal exit therefore hangs above the state, which generates over three quarters of its power from coal including some of Europe's biggest lignite-fired power plants operated by RWE and with Germany's last new hard-coal power plant expected to start operations next year - Uniper's 1 GW Datteln IV unit.

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