BERLIN – Germany's governing parties lost significant support in a state election Sunday that was marked by discontent with infighting in Chancellor Angela Merkel's national government and prompted calls for her administration to get its act together quickly.
Projections showed Merkel's conservatives heading for an extremely lackluster win in the vote for the central Hesse region's state legislature. Her center-left governing partners were on course for a dismal result, running neck-and-neck with the Greens for second place.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union was defending its 19-year hold on Hesse, previously a stronghold of the center-left Social Democrats, the chancellor's federal coalition partners in Berlin.
There was widespread pre-election speculation that a disastrous result for either or both parties could further destabilize the national government, prompting calls for the Social Democrats to walk out and possibly endangering Merkel's own position.
Andrea Nahles, the Social Democrats' leader, said that "the state of the government is unacceptable."
She said her party would insist on Merkel's governing coalition agreeing on "a clear, binding timetable" for implementing projects, and that how that is implemented ahead of an already-agreed midterm review next fall will show "whether we are still in the right place in this government."
The CDU's general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said the coalition needs to identify "three concrete projects for the coming months that we implement." She didn't specify what they might be.
Hesse's conservative governor, Volker Bouffier, told supporters that "the message this evening to the parties in the government in Berlin is clear: people want less argument, more objectivity, more solutions." Merkel's chief of staff, Helge Braun, said that the national government must now pull together and "show we are solving the problems that really move people."
Projections for ARD and ZDF public television, based on exit polls and partial counting, gave the CDU 27-28 percent support and the center-left Social Democrats about 20 percent. When Hesse last elected its state legislature in 2013 -- on the same day that Merkel was triumphantly elected to a third term as chancellor -- they won 38.3 and 30.7 percent, respectively. That would be the worst result in the region for the Social Democrats since World War II.
There were gains for the Greens, who were roughly level with Social Democrats at nearly 20 percent -- compared with 11.1 percent five years ago. And the far-right Alternative for Germany was on course to enter the last of Germany's 16 state parliaments with more than 12 percent.
The pro-business Free Democrats were seen winning above 7 percent and the Left Party around 6.5 percent.
Voters have appeared generally satisfied with Bouffier's outgoing state government. It was the first coalition between the CDU and the traditionally left-leaning Greens to last a full parliamentary term and an unexpectedly harmonious alliance.
But only the Greens, who are in opposition nationally, benefited at the polls.
The projections left uncertain whether Bouffier's outgoing coalition would keep its parliamentary majority, and exactly what other combinations might be possible.
The election campaign in prosperous Hesse, which includes Germany's financial center of Frankfurt, has been largely overshadowed by the woes of a federal coalition that has been in office only since March. The state is home to 6.2 million of Germany's 82 million people.
Two weeks ago, two of the federal governing parties in Merkel's "grand coalition" of what have traditionally been Germany's strongest political forces -- the Christian Social Union, the Bavaria-only sister to Merkel's CDU, and the Social Democrats -- were battered in a state election in neighboring Bavaria.
The Social Democrats only reluctantly entered Merkel's fourth-term national government in March, and many are dismayed by what has happened since.
The government has been through two major crises, first over whether to turn back small numbers of migrants at the German-Austrian border and then over what to do with the head of Germany's domestic intelligence service after he was accused of downplaying far-right violence against migrants. It has failed to convince voters that it's achieving much on other matters.
Karl-Rudolf Korte, a political science professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen, predicted on ZDF television that its leaders "will do everything to save the `grand coalition' for the next three years."
Being able to keep Bouffier, a deputy CDU leader, as governor will stabilize Merkel in the short term, he said. The chancellor has indicated that she will seek another two-year term as CDU leader in December.