Merkel's party secures key victory in bellwether state vote

Pundits say the SPD needs to win in the NRW if the party's candidate for chancellery, Martin Schulz, is to pose a serious threat to Angela Merkel in the upcoming national elections scheduled for September 24.

Analysts said the SPD's biggest problem was that Merkel had managed over her 12 years in power to pull her conservatives to the centre, making them attractive to left-wing and centrist voters who would otherwise vote SPD.

Nominated by the SPD in January to head up its September campaign, Schulz was initially seen as a new face on a political stage of well-known actors.

SPD state premier Hannelore Kraft quickly conceded defeat and said she would stand down as her party's local leader, which analysts called an attempt to shield Schulz from the fallout.

By area, North Rhine - Westphalia - only the fourth of the 16 Federal States of Germany, but by population first.

Palpable frustration over worsening traffic congestion and crime that has plagued the crowded northwestern state, which borders the Netherlands and Belgium, were the decisive factors behind the Social Democrats' sudden demise after the party had ruled there for 46 of the last 51 years. She said she took full responsibility for her party's defeat in Sunday's election. The poll was the final regional vote before the general election in September. Ms. Kraft announced that she was stepping down as the Social Democrats' regional leader.

So although the concrete issues that shaped this election were primarily regional - such as schools, transport and security - this state also matters nationally.

Schulz defiantly asserted that the SPD is a party that knows how to fight back and noted, "The federal elections are still a long way off".

The western state of North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany's most populous and has been led by the Social Democrats for all but five years since 1966.

Exit polls broadcast just after polls closed at 6 p.m. showed the Christian Democrats winning 34.5% of the vote, up from 26% in the last election in 2012. "I hope, of course, that we will be ahead in the evening", he said.

"There was no tailwind from Mr. Schulz that could have balanced that out", he said. The SPD now rules in coalition with the Greens who have been doing poorly in recent polls.

The AfD is now represented in 13 states across Germany.

Another option for Laschet is a tie-up with his party's traditional allies, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), a coalition which would have a thin parliamentary majority.

But she insisted that "the national election campaign is only beginning now".

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.

On Mr Jaeger's watch, Cologne also became the scene of mass sexual assaults by groups of mostly North African men on New Year's Eve of 2015-2016, inflaming the debate over the 890,000 asylum seekers Germany welcomed in 2015.

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