German Chancellor Angela Merkel's bid to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in office in the federal elections, scheduled for September, has received a significant boost after her ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party unexpectedly defeated the main opposition Socialists in local elections in Germany's most populous state.
Not only does Dr Merkel's victory in Sunday's elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), which is home to one in five German voters, act as a reliable bellwether for national trends, it also serves as a vindication for Dr Merkel's campaigning strategy and as a pointer to her next coalition government.
With 18 million residents, NRW is bigger than most of Europe's nation-states. It also contains most of Germany's steel and coal, as well as the country's heavy industry. This was the fiefdom of Germany's Socialist Party (SPD), with a unionised labour force that has been reliably left-wing.
But the state also presents an image few associate with Germany, such as broken roads, dilapidated housing estates and rising unemployment as traditional industries go out of business or move out.
Domestic crime rates have also soared, as did the fear of terrorism. The asylum seeker who drove a car into a Christmas market in Berlin last December, killing 12 people, could have been caught by NRW's state authorities, but warnings were ignored.
Chancellor Merkel's CDU ran a clever local campaign which concentrated on law and order. "CDU: Safer, more police, less burglaries", read its electoral posters. The strategy worked better than even Dr Merkel expected. Although the CDU got only 33 per cent of the vote, it toppled the SPD from its leadership position in the state. The Socialists got only 31.2 per cent of the ballots and have now lost power in NRW for the first time in half a century.
What seemed to have happened is that not only did the CDU take votes from the SPD, but Dr Merkel also attracted people who seldom bothered to vote at all. Voter turnout in all recent German state elections is up and most of this "new" electorate appears to support the Chancellor.
More significantly, the outcome of the NRW ballots amounts to a stinging rebuff for Mr Martin Schulz, SPD party chairman, who was persuaded to give up his post as president of the European Parliament in order to lead the party in the national elections and act as the Socialists' candidate for the position of chancellor. "It's a tough day for the SPD and for me, personally," the SPD leader admitted yesterday, as all the ballots were counted. "We've suffered a crushing defeat."
The NRW debacle raises serious questions about the Socialists' entire federal electoral campaign strategy. Under Mr Schulz, the party concentrated on promising greater welfare protection for workers and a fairer distribution of national wealth.
Yet, all the polling evidence suggests that ordinary Germans are more concerned about rising crime and good governance, areas in which Chancellor Merkel scores well.
And there was further good news for the Chancellor from the NRW ballot. The centrist Free Democratic Party, traditionally the country's third-largest movement but, for decades, in seemingly terminal decline, is now back with a vengeance, attracting 12.6 per cent of the state's ballots. If it can attract a similar level of support in the federal ballot, it will be a useful coalition ally for Dr Merkel.
And the far-right Alternative for Germany, which could have eaten into Dr Merkel's national vote, did worse than expected. It polled only 7.4 per cent in NRW, a result which, if replicated nationally, will not dent the chancellor's re-election chances.
"It's over for Schulz and the Socialists," predicted Mr Philipp Wittrock, an editor with Der Spiegel, Germany's largest news magazine. Dr Merkel's biggest task "is not to allow complacency and arrogance within her party", he said.