Germany: Merkel's party defeated in state election

Chancellor Angela Merkel's party on Sunday suffered a crushing defeat in Hamburg's state election after 10 years in power there, making an uneasy start for the conservative leader in a year with six more such regional polls.

Preliminary results released by the state's election commission showed Merkel's Christian Democrats winning only 21.9 percent of Sunday's vote, sharply down from 42.1 percent in 2008.

The Social Democrats (SPD), in turn, were triumphant with 48.3 percent of the vote, up from 34.1 percent, which guarantees them an absolute majority with 62 of 121 seats in the state legislature.

The northern port city used to be a Social Democratic stronghold in the past and party leader Olaf Scholz, a former labor minister in the previous federal government, now appears certain to replace conservative Mayor Christoph Ahlhaus.

"This is a very, very impressive result," Scholz told a crowd of jubilant party members in Hamburg. "We will go to work now, and do serious, pragmatic and reliable politics," he said.

The Christian Democrat's leader was quick to concede defeat. "This is a harsh defeat for Hamburg's CDU," Christoph Ahlhaus told party members.

Merkel's party was in free fall in Hamburg mostly due to local woes: a popular longtime mayor's resignation and the collapse of an experimental coalition with the Greens.

Nevertheless, the election was also seen as a test for Merkel's conservatives at the outset of a series of seven such votes this year, which are likely to crowd the German chancellor's agenda at a time when European Union struggles to cope with the fallout of its sovereign debt crisis.

Germany's 16 states wield wide powers over national policy through their representation in parliament's upper house.

The likely shift of power in Hamburg is set to strengthen the opposition's hand in the upper house, forcing Merkel's center-right coalition to seek ever more bipartisan deals on all major legislation.

The victory in Hamburg was Social Democrats best result in a state election since 1998, while the CDU's was its worst result in Hamburg elections ever.

"This is a historical result," Germany's SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel said in Berlin.

The Greens, who hoped to form a center-left government with the SPD, reached 11.2 percent.

The pro-business Free Democrats, Merkel's junior partner in the federal government, managed to re-enter parliament with 6.6 percent. Previously, they were not represented in Hamburg as the party remained below the threshold of 5 percent.

The preliminary results showed the Left Party at 6.4 percent.

About 1.3 million people were eligible to vote in Hamburg, and the state election commission estimated turnout was about 63 percent.