Election in Germany's most populous state could boost Merkel

But Germany's best-selling daily Bild noted that "with the clear state election failures, it would be very hard for the SPD to win the general elections in September".

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

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party has won a state election in one of their centre-left rivals' traditional heartlands. Conservative challenger Armin Laschet, a deputy leader of Mrs Merkel's party, was set to replace Ms Kraft.

CDU general secretary Peter Tauber said the party had won the Social Democrats' "heartland" in North Rhine-Westphalia, but other figures suggested regional issues played a key role. "I take personal responsibility for this defeat.", she said.

He insisted, however, that the national election was still some time off. "I hope, of course, that we will be ahead in the evening", he said.

Schulz, 61, who is a former president of the European Parliament, faces an extremely tough competition against Merkel, 62.

But poor showings in two previous state elections since then had already punctured the party's euphoria over Schulz's nomination.

Almost 18 million people live in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to four of the country's nine largest cities, including Cologne and Dusseldorf, as well as to 10 million cars.

Merkel's party scored a similar upset win over a Social Democrats-Greens coalition in the rural northern state of Schleswig-Holstein on May 7 after pulling off an unexpectedly strong win in the small state of Saarland, on the French border, on March 26.

Liberal party FDP saw a revival, polling at 12% in the state, after being consigned to political wilderness when it failed to cross the five-percent hurdle in national election in 2013.

Martin Schulz, the SPD's chancellor candidate looking to unseat Merkel in the national election in September, weighed in on his party's defeat.

Merkel stood firm in the face of heated criticism at home and overseas for opening Germany's borders in 2015 to more than one million mainly Muslim asylum seekers, a measure that hurt her popularity and contributed to the rise of the nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The opposition Left Party fell just short of the 5% needed to win seats.

The result gives the CDU and Free Democrats a very slim majority.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and North Rhine-Westphalia top candidate of her Christian Democrats, Armin Laschet, wave to supporters at the last stage of the state election campaign in Aachen, Germany, Saturday.

Martin Schulz on Sunday.

Carsten Nickel, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence, said the NRW result was a sign that Merkel was on her way to re-election.

Mrs Kraft announced that she was stepping down as the Social Democrats' regional leader.

The industrial state has been governed by a center-left coalition of the SPD and the Greens since 2010, with Social Democrat Hannelore Kraft serving as state governor.

Merkel's party seemed keen not to appear too euphoric.

  • Anthony Vega