German local vote is test for Merkel's challenger

Ian Collins Scathing Take On New French President Emmanuel Macron        
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives have come in first place in a local election seen as a warm-up for her bid for a fourth term in a national vote later this year.

On the national level in Berlin, Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU have led a "grand coalition" as the senior partner with the SPD since 2013 and previously between 2005 and 2009.

For the past five years, the northern state has been governed by a coalition led by the center-left Social Democratic party.

Analysts say it is a good prediction of Merkel's chances of winning the German national election in September.

The Schleswig-Holstein vote is a prelude to an election for the regional parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest region and home to Schulz, although he is not on the ballot there.

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Christian Lindner, the leader of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), a potential coalition partner for Merkel if she beats Schulz in September, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on Wednesday that he expected an "uncomfortable" discussion with Macron on Europe. His party colleague Martin Schulz, who will challenge Merkel in the German election, backed Macron's idea to create a budget for the euro zone to fund investments.

"He is for an European Union in which responsibilities are standardized and blurred", Lindner said, accusing the SPD of conspiring with Macron to promote higher government debt. Merkel, in power for nearly 12 years and seeking another four, is running in part on her worldwide standing as Germany prepares to host a Group of 20 summit in July.

The CDU raised its share of the vote in the state to 32 percent while the Social Democrats (SPD) - her main rival in September - dropped to 27.2 percent, according to a preliminary vote count.

The Social Democrats surged in national polls after Martin Schulz, a former European Parliament president, was nominated as Merkel's challenger, but the party's ratings have since sagged.

The outcome in Schleswig-Holstein "confirms a nationwide trend that is giving wings to the Christian Democrats across the country that numerous Merkel critics within the Christian Democrats had considered impossible", the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper said. The Greens party, the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) are each expected to receive 7 percent of the vote.

But with the pace of new arrivals sharply slowing, surveys show the conservatives gaining round.

"This a bitter result for us", Barley said, while dismissing fears that the loss in Schleswig-Holstein could hurt the momentum of Social Democrat Party ahead of another round of regional elections next week - in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, an SPD stronghold.

The poll also showed support for Schulz within the SPD dropped to 67 percent from 74 percent the previous week. Guenther staked his claim to the post of prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein after the elections.

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