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Merkel's conservatives win North Rhine-Westphalia vote

19 May 2017

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives won a State election Sunday in their centre-left rivals' traditional heartland, a stinging blow to the German leader's challenger in September's national election. In an echo of Merkel's second-term coalition at the national level, the CDU can now form a state government with the pro-market Free Democrats, who surged 4 points to 12.6 percent.

The liberal Free Democrats, the CDU's preferred coalition partners, have bounced back to win nearly 13 per cent in NRW where the two allies are expected to have enough seats in the regional parliament to muster a majority.

The nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 7.5 percent. Sunday's results mark the third victory in recent state elections for Merkel's party, giving the German Chancellor another shot of momentum heading into the nationwide vote.

Sunday's elections were widely seen as a test of support for Merkel and Christian Democrats in the run-up to the national elections on September 24.

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"This was a whopping defeat", Schulz, 61, a former European Parliament president who hails from the state, told reporters in Berlin.

"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.

SPD Premier Hannelore Kraft hit back at Merkel. The projected result is the party's worst in North Rhine-Westphalia since World War II.

The CDU unseated the SPD in North Rhine-Westphalia in May 2005, prompting a snap federal election. Other parties trailed far behind the two leaders.

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The western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), with 17.9 million people, is home to almost a quarter of Germany's population.

After casting his vote in his hometown of Wuerselen, Mr Schulz acknowledged yesterday that the race would be close, with 30 per cent of voters deciding their pick at the last minute. It lost 8.5 percent when compared to the 2012 election.

Only a year ago Merkel was battling to recover from a political backlash unleashed by her September 2015 decision to open Germany's borders to allow around 1 million refugees into the country, triggering speculation she might not stand for re-election this year. "We are aware that this new phase will be an exhausting one", she said, but added that the grand right-left coalition led by her party has a good record to show. The campaign "will be mainly about concepts for the future", including the digital economy, education and research, she said. The total mileage of traffic backed up in North Rhine-Westphalia past year stretched to 242,500 miles, or more than double the 100,625 miles recorded in 2012.

A German motorist association went to the trouble of tallying the total number of recorded traffic jams in the past year - 218,000, an increase of 20% from 2015.

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"The issue of fairness is, of course, very important but I am convinced that the Social Democrats are struggling with the concept of innovation and are getting things the wrong way round", she said.