BERLIN (AP) — Voters in Germany's most populous state inflicted an embarrassingly heavy defeat on Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives Sunday and strengthened a regional government that the German leader's party had portrayed as irresponsibly spendthrift.
The outcome boosted Germany's center-left opposition, and was a bitter pill to swallow for Merkel's Christian Democrats as the country looks toward national elections due late next year and the chancellor grapples with Europe's stubbornly persistent debt crisis.
The center-left Social Democrats and Greens — Germany's main opposition parties — won combined support of 50.4 percent in the election in North Rhine-Westphalia. That gave them a majority in the state legislature, which they narrowly missed in the last regional election two years ago.
Meanwhile, support for Merkel's party plunged to 26.3 percent from 34.6 percent in 2010, its worst showing in the state since World War II.
"The likelihood has become significantly greater that the next chancellor will be a Social Democrat," the opposition party's general secretary, Andrea Nahles, proclaimed on ARD television.
Still, the pro-market Free Democrats, Merkel's struggling partners in the national government, performed respectably, polling 8.6 percent — a result that may help stabilize the party.
The state government of popular Social Democratic governor Hannelore Kraft had been favored to win, particularly after a much-criticized and gaffe-prone campaign by conservative challenger Norbert Roettgen, Merkel's federal environment minister.
Even so, senior conservative lawmaker Peter Altmaier said that "this result exceeds our worst fears."
"This is a crashing defeat for Mrs. Merkel and her minister," Nahles said. The Social Democrats' share of the vote climbed to 39.1 percent from 34.5 percent.
"The defeat is bitter, it is clear and it really hurts," Roettgen said minutes after polls closed, announcing that he would give up the leadership of the Christian Democrats' local branch. "This is, above all, my personal defeat."
About 13.2 million people were eligible to vote in the western state, a traditional center-left stronghold that includes Cologne, Duesseldorf and the industrial Ruhr region. Turnout was barely changed at 59.6 percent.
North Rhine-Westphalia voted three years early after Kraft's incumbent minority government failed to get a budget passed in March. Merkel said then that the election offered the region an opportunity to choose a government that wouldn't take on "ever more debt."
While national polls show Germans support Merkel's pro-austerity stance in Europe, prominent Christian Democrat Peter Hintze said voters in North Rhine-Westphalia viewed regional budget deficits as an "abstract theme."
Roettgen faced criticism for not committing himself to stay in state-level politics and for saying, in an apparent attempt at irony, that "regrettably" voters rather than his party would decide whether he became governor.