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Blow for Scholz as conservatives win key German state vote

Thomas Kutschaty, German Social Democratic Party (SPD) top candidate for Minister President in North Rhine-Westphalia, and his wife Christina Kutschaty cast their votes in Essen, Germany, Sunday, May 15, 2022. (Fabian Strauch/dpa via AP)

BERLIN (AP) — Exit polls suggest that voters backed the incumbent conservative governor and dealt a blow to Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats in Germany’s most populous state Sunday.

Figures released after voting ended at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT; 12 p.m. EDT) in the North Rhine-Westphalia state election showed the Christian Democrats making small gains to take 35% of the vote.

Public broadcaster WDR reported that the Social Democrats were projected to get 27.5%, while the environmentalist Greens' share stood at 18.5%, a new record for the party in the state. The pro-business Free Democrats saw a big drop in support and were on course to get 5% of the vote, the minimum required to enter the state parliament.

The election in North Rhine-Westphalia was seen as an important test for Scholz. His government at the national level has faced a challenging start tackling the fallout from the pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine.

The Christian Democrats have been governing together with the Free Democrats since 2017 in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is home to almost 18 million people and includes major cities such as Cologne and Duesseldorf.

If the exit polls hold, incumbent governor Hendrik Wuest would need to enter into a pact with the Social Democrats or the Greens. An alliance between the Social Democrats, Greens and the Free Democrats — mirroring the one governing at the national level — was also feasible.

Alongside education and crime, the issue of tackling the causes and effects of climate change in the state — with its long history of heavy industry — has become an important election issue.

North Rhine-Westphalia was among the regions hit by a devastating flash flood last year that fueled calls to end coal mining in the state. Experts say continued burning of fossil fuels increases the likelihood of such disasters in future.

The Christian Democrats last week won a state vote in Schleswig-Holstein, but lost power to the Social Democrats in tiny Saarland in March.

The Associated Press