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Merkel suffers setback in polls

Voters in Germany's most populous state have strengthened a centre-left regional government which Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives sought to portray as irresponsibly spendthrift, and inflicted an embarrassingly heavy defeat on the German leader's party, projections have shown.

The centre-left Social Democrats and Greens - Germany's main opposition parties - won combined support of about 51% in the election in North Rhine-Westphalia state, according to ARD television based on exit polls and early counting. That would be enough to give them a majority in the state legislature, which they narrowly missed in the last regional election two years ago.

Support for Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrats was seen dropping to 26% from more than 34%, their worst showing in the state since World War II. But the pro-market Free Democrats, Merkel's struggling partners in the national government, performed respectably - polling more than 8% to buck speculation that they might fail to win seats.

The incumbent government of popular governor Hannelore Kraft had been favoured to win, particularly after a much-criticised and sometimes gaffe-prone campaign by conservative challenger Norbert Roettgen, Mrs Merkel's federal environment minister. The vote came as Germany starts looking toward national elections due late next year.

"This is a crashing defeat for Mrs Merkel and her minister," said Andrea Nahles, the Social Democrats' general secretary.

"The defeat is bitter, it is clear and it really hurts," a crestfallen Mr Roettgen said minutes after the polls closed, announcing that he would give up the leadership of the Christian Democrats' local branch. "This is, above all, my personal defeat."

Sunday's election - unlike North Rhine-Westphalia's last vote in 2010 - won't change the national balance of power.

Two years ago, Mrs 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 Mrs 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.

That suggests that Mrs Merkel's chances of holding on to power are still decent when the national election comes, though perhaps with a new coalition partner.

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