Merkel's party wins big in rivals' heartland

Merkel's party wins big in rivals' heartland

On Sunday, in the key bellwether state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Social Democrats (SPD) was soundly beaten by Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in what exit polls suggest may have been SPD's worst regional result on record.

Preliminary results showed Merkel's CDU receiving 33% of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, or NRW, followed by the Social Democratic Party's 31.4%.

The SPD only managed to garner 30.6 per cent, sharply down from its 2012 score of 39.1 per cent, in a serious hit to confidence ahead of general elections in September.

Germany's right-wing nationalist party, Alternative für Deutschland, won a little over 7% of Sunday's vote and will therefore have representation in the NRW parliament.

After 18 months of turmoil in Europe with the eurozone crisis, Brexit and the rise of the right win across the bloc, the Chancellor will undoubtedly looking for signs of support. "I hail from the state where we just suffered a crushing election defeat", Schulz stated.

North Rhine-Westphalia state Premier Hannelore Kraft said she's stepping down as regional party head after the SPD sank to an all-time low in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The shock result comes four months before the German federal election, with polls showing the Social Democrats trailing CDU by up to 10 points after drawing level earlier this year.

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.

But defeats in two other state elections since late March punctured the party's euphoria over his nomination.

The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), looking to re-enter the German Parliament this fall, came in third in North Rhine-Westphalia, taking 12.6% of the vote, a significant increase compared to 2012.

Interior minister of North-Rhine-Westphalia Ralf Jaeger addresses a press conference to announce the suspension of Cologne's police chief on Januar 8, 2015 in Cologne, western Germany.

"This is a great day for North Rhine-Westphalia", Armin Laschet, CDU's top candidate in the state, told Deutsche Welle.

It is home to 17.9 million people, almost a quarter of Germany's population, and is also the home state of Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic challenger seeking to deny Mrs Merkel a fourth term in the national election on September 24.

"I've heard the criticism of people who say 'you're nice, but you have to get more specific.' And that's what I plan to do", Schulz told CNN affiliate ARD.

That would mirror Merkel's national government, in which the Social Democrats are the junior partners.

But she insisted that "the national election campaign is only beginning now". Recent polls indicate the AfD will clear the 5 percent hurdle, but it is still unclear exactly how well they will do.

State interior minister Ralf Jaeger has faced criticism for failing to detain Anis Amri, the Tunisian asylum seeker suspected in the deadly Berlin Christmas market rampage previous year.