BERLIN • Voters in Germany's northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein, have handed Chancellor Angela Merkel's party an unexpected victory in a state election, suggesting that Germans were willing to back the centre-right in a year when the Chancellor is seeking a fourth term.
Local issues dominated the race, in which a largely unknown 43-year-old led Dr Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to victory on Sunday.
The Christian Democrats won about 32 per cent of the vote, while the Social Democratic Party (SPD) trailed with about 27 per cent, partial results and projections showed.
"We won with clear points that spoke to voters," said Mr Daniel Gunther, the party's top candidate in Schleswig-Holstein, who will now face the task of forming a new government.
The loss was the second in a row for the incumbent SPD, after another state, Saarland, voted the conservatives into power in March.
The outcome marked a blow for the SPD, which had earlier this year seen a surge in support since new leader Martin Schulz was chosen in February. But this enthusiasm appeared to be fading, and Mr Schulz's supporters are increasingly fearful that the momentum he had been surfing on will not carry him into the chancellery, which Dr Merkel and her CDU have held since 2005.
Mr Schulz expressed disappointment, saying: "This is something that goes under the skin and makes us sad. We all expected a better result."
The populist AfD (Alternative for Germany), which has railed against the influx of immigrants, scraped through on Sunday with 5.9 per cent support, winning its first seats in the state Parliament in Kiel, despite a vicious falling-out between moderates and hardliners inside the party.
The result was, however, a far worse showing than at the end of last year, when it was the third most popular party nationwide.
The upstart party rode a wave of anger and uncertainty to considerable popularity in several eastern states last year, after Dr Merkel's decision to take in nearly one million refugees, but it has failed to perform as strongly in elections in the western states this year.
And with the pace of new arrivals slowing sharply, surveys show the conservatives gaining ground again.
Beyond its significance as the last-but-one regional election before the September general election, there were plenty of local peculiarities in Sunday's vote. This year's campaign saw battles over wind farm construction near residential areas, education, policing and roads, a top concern in a state with a thinly spread population of 2.8 million .
Germans in the country's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, will vote this coming Sunday in another state election seen as an indicator of the national mood before the national race for a new Parliament on Sept 24.
"The CDU is catching up regionally, and that lends momentum to Merkel ahead of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia... and before the national elections in the autumn," said Spiegel Online.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE