BERLIN • Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany received a significant lift to her re-election bid on Sunday when her party finished a clear first in a state election that was widely watched as a test of her strength.
Results from Sunday's vote in tiny Saarland, which borders France and is home to around one million people, showed that Dr Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats had won 40.7 per cent of the vote.
The popular Christian Democrat governor of Saarland, Ms Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is such a close ally of the Chancellor that she is often called "the mini-Merkel", so the election also seemed a victory for Germany's leader.
Dr Merkel is seeking a fourth term in national elections on Sept 24, in a race that has grown more challenging in recent weeks after her centre-left rivals, the Social Democrats, unanimously selected a new candidate, Dr Martin Schulz, to lead them into the fight.
Results from Saarland suggest that Dr Schulz has helped to increase the Social Democrats' appeal. The party won 29.6 per cent of the vote, about 5 percentage points more than polls had shown before he took over party leadership.
But the centre left fell short of its goal of finishing first among Saarland's approximately 800,000 voters.
One outcome that had been in play in Saarland was a governing partnership between the centre-left Social Democrats and the far-left Left party, in what would have been the first such coalition in a western German state.
But the Left party won only around 13 per cent of the vote, and it is likely that the Social Democrats will again be a junior partner in Saarland in a coalition with the Christian Democrats. "It was a clear 'no' to a Left government," Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has advanced on an anti-migrant, anti-Muslim platform, got 6.2 per cent of the vote, clearing the 5 per cent hurdle to get seats. It will now sit in 12 of Germany's 16 state legislatures.
It was, however, the AfD's worst result after five state elections in which it topped 10 per cent, in a sign that the abating refugee crisis and bitter infighting have damaged popular support for the protest party.
The result was a respite for Dr Merkel, who has come under pressure from party allies to sharpen her campaign against the Social Democrats, who have surged to parity in national polls ahead of the September election.
For Dr Schulz, the result was a signal that coalition options for his party may be limited if it wins the national election.
The next electoral test is far bigger, with two states - including North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous region - going to the polls in May.
While Dr Merkel campaigned briefly in Saarland, she has signalled privately that she is not going to go into full election mode until late summer, arguing that she cannot be distracted from leading the country at a time of multiple challenges, from Brexit to an uncertain United States partner.
NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE