Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives have suffered a crushing defeat in an election in Germany's most populous state, exit polls showed, a result which could embolden the left opposition to step up attacks on her European austerity policies.
The election on Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia, a western German state with a bigger population than the Netherlands and an economy the size of Turkey, was held 18 months before a national election in which Merkel is expected to fight for a third term.
According to the latest polls, support for Merkels' Christian Democrats has apparently dropped to 26 per cent from 35 per cent in 2010, the worst result in the country since World War two.
The centre-left Social Democrats took the lead with 39 per cent of the vote. The leftist Green Party came in second place by winning 12 per cent.
The Free Democrats (FDP), a pro-business party that rules in coalition with Merkel's conservatives at the federal level, looked to have made it back into the state assembly after scoring 8.5 per cent of the vote, in what many will see as a rebound for the party after a collapse in support in recent years.
About 13.2 million people - more than a fifth of Germany's electorate - were eligible to vote in the legislative election in the state which includes Cologne, Duesseldorf and the industrial Ruhr region.
The election is the third state-level vote this year and comes a week after a coalition of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and pro-market Free Democrats - the parties that make up the national government - lost power in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.
North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional centre-left stronghold, voted three years ahead of schedule after its current minority government, made up of Germany's main national opposition parties, narrowly failed to get a budget passed in March.
Opposition leaders declared that the vote would send an important signal ahead of national elections due in late 2013. Merkel said it offered an opportunity for the region to elect a government that wouldn't take on "ever more debt".
Christoph Strunck, professor at Siegen University, said that the predicted loss for the Christian Democrats in the elections will make national politics more complicated.
"The social democrats, if they win, will turn up the heat, and right now we have ongoing negotiations about the European fiscal pact that still has to be ratified. Social Democrats will try to put more aspects of a stimulus programme in this pact, for instance.”
While national polls show Germans backing Merkel's pro-austerity line, surveys suggest that the regional government of Social Democrats and Greens led by popular governor Hannelore Kraft has a good chance of emerging strengthened, with a majority in the state legislature.
Conservative challenger Norbert Roettgen, Merkel's federal environment minister, has faced criticism for not committing himself to stay in state-level politics and for saying on a television show, in an apparent attempt at irony which backfired, that "regrettably'' voters rather than his party would decide whether he became governor.
Roettgen irritated his party by declaring that Sunday's election would decide "whether Angela Merkel's course in Europe is strengthened or whether it is weakened by the re-election of a pro-debt government in Germany'.'
Merkel told the Ruhr Nachrichten newspaper this week that the vote is "an important state parliament election for North Rhine-Westphalia -- no more, no less".
But, under a headline asking "How much longer?", Die Zeit newspaper commented that the vote could be a "fateful day" for Merkel. "Angela Merkel is at the peak of her power -- and knows, now it becomes quite tough," it said.
The struggling Free Democrats' main aim is to win the 5 per cent of votes needed to retain their parliamentary seats, building on a surprisingly strong performance last weekend in Schleswig-Holstein.
The upstart Pirate Party, which has surged in recent months with a platform of near-total transparency and internet freedom but lacks policies on many issues - most prominently the debt crisis itself - hopes to enter its fourth state legislature. That could complicate the centre-left's chances of winning a majority.
While Germany's opposition, if it wins, will claim tail wind for next year's national vote, Sunday's election - unlike North Rhine-Westphalia's last vote in 2010 - would not change the national balance of power.
Two years ago, Merkel's coalition lost the state after five years in power there. That erased the national government's majority in the upper house of parliament, which represents Germany's 16 states, and its position there has since weakened further.
Current national polls consistently show Merkel's conservatives as the biggest party. However, they forecast a parliamentary majority neither for her centre-right coalition - which has become notorious for infighting on a wide range of policy issues - nor for the Social Democrats and Greens, who ran Germany from 1998 to 2005.
When the national election comes, Merkel's chances of holding on to power still look decent, though perhaps with a new coalition partner.
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