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Merkel's party snatches state from rivals in crushing election win

However, with a win for mainstream candidate Mark Rutte in Holland's election earlier this year, and the victory of Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen in France last week, Germany's incumbent could be well positioned for a ride through to her fourth term.

But the results marked a huge blow to Martin Schulz, who had generated a strong surge in support for the SPD when he took over the party in February.

The state leader of the SDP in North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, resigned immediately in a bid to deflect the loss away from Schulz.

Another scandal that affected the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2016 was a terrorist attack that took place in Berlin on December 19, when a truck rammed into people at a Christmas market in the center of Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 48 more.

The second victor was the charismatic, 38-year-old leader of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), Christian Lindner, his party's top candidate in the state. It is seen as a bellwether for national elections.

The SPD only managed to garner 30.6%, its worst score in history in the state and sharply down from its 2012 showing of 39.1%, in a serious hit to confidence ahead of general elections in September.

Marcus Pretzell, the AfD's regional head, celebrated what he called "a real punch to the nose" for Kraft and hailed the Green party's low result as well.

The result could greatly boost the morale of CDU in the national election, since so far it has scored success in three state elections this year, namely in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia.

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The Christian Democratic Union's victory in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to more than a fifth of German voters, is a resounding confirmation for Merkel, 62. North-Rhine Westphalia was previously a stronghold for the SPD.

The western state, which includes Cologne, Duesseldorf and the Ruhr industrial region, has been led by the Social Democrats for all but five years since 1966. "At the end, when we look to the judge, it's going to be the voters who raise the winner's arms", he said.

Schulz's chances of becoming chancellor still "seem material" given that he already energized his party's voters once, Ricardo Garcia, a European economist at UBS, said in a research note.

Kraft told ARD television she had "asked Martin Schulz to let national politics wait until the election was over".

Merkel stood firm in the face of heated criticism at home and overseas for opening Germany's borders in 2015 to more than one million mainly Muslim asylum seekers, a measure that hurt her popularity and contributed to the rise of the nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD).

That would make it hard for the SPD to muster another coalition, especially as their natural partners, the hard-left Die Linke, are also on just 6 per cent.

Another option for Laschet is a tie-up with his party's traditional allies, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), a coalition which would have a thin parliamentary majority.

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