The leadership of Germany's Social Democrat Party (SPD) met shortly after the damaging defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia and emerged soon after to declare it was considering calling an early federal election.
SPD leader Franz Müntefering announces a possible early election
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats lost control of a key state on Sunday, according to exit polls, and then proposed moving the general election forward to this year.
The polls showed the Social Democratic Party (SPD) suffered a heavy defeat in the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia where it had ruled for 39 years.
The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won 45 percent, comfortably ahead of the 37.2 percent for the SPD, public TV said, shortly after polling stations closed.
Bitter defeat leads to emergency discussions
SPD chairman Franz Müntefering said it was a "bitter defeat" and immediately announced that his party would propose holding a general election late this year, around 12 months ahead of the scheduled date of September 2006.
"The chancellor and I have given notice that we will seek to hold general elections in the autumn," Müntefering said. The party would discuss the proposal on Monday but the final
decision would have to be made by the Bundestag lower house of parliament, he added.
Schröder added that the "bitter defeat" for the SPD "throws into question" his ruling coalition's ability to govern. He was therefore in favour of holding a general election "in autumn this year", one year ahead of the scheduled date.
North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany with 18 million residents, was the last remaining state governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, the so-called red-green coalition, mirroring the federal ruling coalition in Berlin.
The defeat is the latest in a series of poor state election results for Schröder's party. In 1999, it governed in 11 of Germany's 16 states but is now in charge of only five.
Merkel hails sensational victory
Volker Kauder, left, Secretary General of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and chairwoman Angela Merkel, right, cheer in the party's headquarters in Berlin after a press conference following the announcement of exit polls of the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Sunday, May 22, 2005. First exit polls predict a victory of the CDU. The result is widely viewed as a strong indicator for next year's national vote.
Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel, who is likely to challenge Schroeder in the general election in a bid to become Germany's first woman leader, hailed the outcome as "sensational".
"The voters have given the Christian Democratic Union a sensational result, they have showed hope in us and in the future state leader Jürgen Rüttgers because the problems are so great and they want us to shape a policy that will bring down unemployment," Merkel said.
She welcomed the possibility of early elections. "Every day without the red-green coalition will be a good day for Germany," Merkel said.
New state premier Rüttgers looks to FDP
Rüttgers, the CDU's lead candidate in the state, had capitalized on the high unemployment rate in the heavily industrialized state where 1.1 million people are out of work, just over one fifth of the national total.
A series of social security and labor market reforms introduced by Schröder's government have proved deeply unpopular with the SPD's traditional working-class voters. That was reflected in what, if confirmed, would be its worst state election result in North Rhine-Westphalia for 51 years.
The CDU's likely coalition partner, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), won 6.2 percent with the Greens taking 6.0 percent, the exit polls showed.
Rüttgers said he would begin negotiations with the FDP as soon as possible with a view to forming a ruling coalition.