German regional voters handed Angela Merkel a clear victory on Sunday, kicking off an electoral marathon that will lead to the general election in September and bringing the chancellor a step closer to a second term in office.
The election in the western state of Hesse is set to result in a coalition of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the smaller, free-market Free Democratic party.
Early exit polls showed Roland Koch, Hesse’s incumbent CDU state premier, had secured 37.5 per cent of the votes and the FDP 17 per cent, or twice its previous score, giving the allies a comfortable majority in the regional parliament.
The Social Democratic party (SPD), junior partner in Ms Merkel’s cross-party “grand coalition” and the CDU’s main left-of-centre rival, suffered a debacle, with exit polls showing it had won 23.5 per cent of the votes, which would be its worst result in the state since 1950.
The outcome is a blow for Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister and the SPD’s designated candidate for the chancellery, and for Franz Müntefering, party chairman. The vote shows that the ousting in September of Kurt Beck, the SPD’s unpopular chairman, has failed to turn round the party’s fading fortunes.
“This is a bad, a very bad result for the SPD, and it is not a surprise,” Mr Müntefering said. “But it is also a leftover of 2008. The real condition of the party will show itself in September.”
The SPD’s performance in Hesse, taking place only a year after its last election, which delivered a hung parliament, matches its current national opinion poll ratings.
Experts said voters had punished Andrea Ypsilanti, the SPD candidate at last year’s election, for attempting – and failing – to form a government with the radical Left party despite assurances before the election that she would not do so.
CDU and FDP officials hailed the result as a precursor to a centre-right victory in September, but the election could make it harder for Ms Merkel to push her recent €50bn ($67bn, £45bn) fiscal stimulus package through parliament.
After the FDP’s entry into the Bavarian government in September, the Hesse vote will rob the grand coalition of its majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament representingGermany’s 16 states.
This means the FDP could block the stimulus package, although senior CDU officials told the Financial Times last week they believed the free-market FDP would confine itself to seeking minor changes.
“They know full well that total obstruction would be political suicide,” one senior member of parliament for the CDU said.
Sunday’s election marks the return of Mr Koch to the political front line after a year acting as caretaker state premier. He has been billed as a potential finance or economics minister in the event of of a CDU-FDP victory in September.