Angela Merkel's party humiliated by shock election defeat

German voters reject austerity programme in favour of pro-growth opposition in state poll

Berlin

Angela Merkel's ruling conservatives suffered a humiliating defeat in key elections in Germany's most populous state yesterday when voters rejected her party's austerity policies and handed a resounding victory to her pro-growth Social Democratic Party opponents.

Ms Merkel's Christian Democrats were shell-shocked by the devastating result they returned in the poll in North Rhine Westphalia, which has a total population of 18 million. Exit polls showed that they secured a mere 25.5 per cent of the vote – their worst performance ever in the state.

Germany's conservative Environment Minister, Norbert Röttgen, the party's candidate in the election, had mounted a vigorous campaign centred on Ms Merkel's austerity policies, which aimed to cut the state's €230 billion debt.

"Today is a very bitter day," Mr Röttgen conceded last night. "We have been clearly defeated."

By contrast, the pro-growth Social Democrats and their candidate Hannelore Kraft, 50, romped home with 38 per cent of the vote. They were expected to form a so-called Red-Green coalition with the environmentalist Greens who won around 12 per cent of the vote. The two parties secured enough seats to obtain an absolute majority in the state parliament.

The conservatives campaigned in the run-up to the poll with an inflatable rubber "debt mountain" to illustrate the region's financial problems. By contrast, Mrs Kraft dismissed rigid saving programmes in favour of growth and insisted that her aim was "putting people first".

Elections in North Rhine Westphalia are considered a key indicator of national voting intentions. Andrea Nahles, the general secretary of Germany's Social Democrats, insisted that the result paved the way for the ousting of Angela Merkel in Germany's general election next year.

There were even suggestions last night that Mrs Kraft, whose political style has been compared to that of Ms Merkel, could run for the post of Social Democrat Chancellor candidate in next year's election.

Ms Merkel's liberal Free Democrat coalition partners were able to avoid a feared electoral disaster and managed to gain 8 per cent of the vote – enough for the party to avoid being left without enough votes to win seats in the state parliament.

Yesterday's result was the second major poll setback for Ms Merkel's conservatives within the space of a week. In elections in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, her Christian Democrats secured their lowest share of the vote in over 50 years.

The conservatives' slide began last year when they suffered one of their worst-ever blows in the prosperous southern state of Baden-Württemberg, where they were ousted from power for the first time since the early 1950s by a coalition of Greens and the Social Democrats.

The conservatives are currently in power in six of Germany's 17 federal states. Yet despite the growing unpopularity of her own party, on a personal level Ms Merkel continues to rate as one of Germany's most respected Chancellors ever.

Hollande flies to Berlin for showdown

Officials in both Paris and Berlin are trying to dampen down expectations before the first encounter tomorrow between a newly installed French President and an increasingly beleaguered German Chancellor.

Almost the first act of President François Hollande, after he takes the oath of office in Paris tomorrow morning, will be to fly to Berlin to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel. Europe-watchers will be scrutinising the proceedings closely to see if new Franco-German axis to replace "Merkozy" be a French-dominated "HoMer" or a German dominated "Merklande".

The two leaders will hold three hours of talks followed by a press conference and then a working dinner. Mr Hollande will be trying to persuade Ms Merkel that it is in her own interest, and Germany's interest, to relax her all-austerity approach to the crisis in the Eurozone. Ms Merkel, in contrast, is likely to insist that there is no question of reopening the EU fiscal discipline treaty agreed by 25 out of 27 countries in March and that there is no question of turning on the taps of "deficit" spending.

For the sake of the markets, the two leaders are likely to use their press conference to stake out common ground rather than to emphasise their differences. The Hollande camp points out that he will be travelling almost alone, without his yet-to-be-named prime minister or finance minister. There can, therefore, be no in-depth negotiation.

John Lichfield

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there