Chancellor Merkel's conservatives are braced for their worst-ever result in Germany's most populous state. Federal Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen has quit his regional post, and is under fire from foes and friends.
Provisional results suggest that the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens have comfortably won Sunday's election in the battleground state of North Rhine-Westphalia, with an absolute parliamentary majority in Dusseldorf regional assembly likely but not quite guaranteed.
The usually-reliable official forecasts put state premier Hannelore Kraft's SPD on 39.1 percent of the vote, with a further 11.3 percent for the third-placed Greens - almost exactly 50 percent when combined.
"We have met all of our election targets with a strong SPD, and the alliance with the Greens in North Rhine Westphalia will continue," Kraft told her supporters, referring to the previous minority coalition government she had headed in Germany's most populous state since 2010.
Prior to the vote, Kraft had said her target was a center-left allliance with a clear majority to govern. The SPD leader, who enjoys high personal popularity, according to surveys, dismissed suggestions that she might become a potential opposition candidate to Chancellor Merkel in next year's federal election.
"The situation remains unchanged, I have an important political task here (in NRW)," Kraft told German ARD public television.
Röttgen quits NRW role
Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) suffered their worst result in NRW, recording a projected 26.3 percent of the vote - compared to 34.6 percent in the 2010 ballot.
The CDU's defeated lead candidate, federal Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, resigned his chairmanship of the regional CDU on election evening.
"This result means that it is necessary that I give up the party leadership within this state," Röttgen said. "It is a unmistakable, clear defeat that we have suffered today. The defeat is bitter, it's clear, and it really hurts all of us - obviously me included."
"I have lost here, this was my election campaign, and it also concerned my talking points," the environment minister added.
Röttgen awoke Monday to considerable criticisms, not just from the opposition but from high-ranking party colleagues – many of whom questioned his ability to juggle responsibilities in Berlin and the state capital Düsseldorf.
"It would have helped the CDU, if Norbert Röttgen had clearly decided in favor of Düsseldorf before the campaign - and without any if's or but's concerning the position to which voters would be appointing him," CDU politician and chairman of the German interior committee Wolfgang Bosbach told the Colonge's Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper on Monday. Similar comments emerged in the same article from leading party member Michael Fuchs.
Bosbach added, however, that he did not think Röttgen's twin tasks were "decisive" in the election outcome, complaining instead of additional party-internal debates " with which we worried the voters." That criticism also appeared aimed at Röttgen, renowned as a Christian Democrat who would occasionally defy the party line. Among other issues, the environment minister had opposed CDU plans to reduce solar power subsidies in the run-up to Sunday's poll. His more ecologist image was thought to be one of the reasons he received the environment portfolio in the first place.
More critical opponents
The Green party's federal co-leader Claudia Röth, meanwhile, called on Röttgen to also consider quitting Merkel's cabinet.
"The question is entirely justified: How on earth can he now hope to remain a good minister at the federal level?" ecologist Röth asked in an interview with Bavarian public radio.
Röth's Greens look set to again become Kraft's coalition partner, with over 11 percent of the vote. Merkel's national allies, the pro-business Free Democrats, scored 8.6 percent - a moderate success comparied to their recent electoral disasters in states like Berlin, Saarland, Rhineland Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt.
The upstart Pirate party, meanwhile, also cleared the 5-percent threshold in the Düsseldorf parliament, winning 7.8 percent of the vote. That's the fourth state election since September in which the relatively new Pirates have won seats for the first time in a state assembly.
The Left Party did not clear the 5-percent hurdle - as they did last time out in 2010 - scoring a projected 2.5 percent.
msh/ipj (dapd, dpa, Reuters)