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Originally published Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 9:09 AM

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Merkel party wins year's 1st German state vote

Chancellor Angela Merkel's party won a state election in western Germany Sunday, making a promising start to a difficult series of regional ballots, but voters inflicted more pain on her struggling partners in the national government.

Associated Press

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BERLIN —

Chancellor Angela Merkel's party won a state election in western Germany Sunday, making a promising start to a difficult series of regional ballots, but voters inflicted more pain on her struggling partners in the national government.

Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats looked set to preserve their 12-year hold on the governor's office in Saarland, a region of 1 million people on the French border.

It was the first of three state elections in two months that offer a test before a national vote expected late next year in Germany, Europe's biggest economy.

Merkel's party took 35.2 percent of the vote - winning unexpectedly clearly over Germany's main opposition Social Democrats, who made gains but finished on 30.6 percent.

However, there was another disastrous showing for the pro-market Free Democrats, Merkel's partners in the national government, who were ejected from the state legislature with just 1.2 percent support. And the upstart Pirate Party was voted in, underlining its emergence as a national political force.

Saarland voted more than two years ahead of schedule after governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer pulled the plug on the state's previous government - an experimental three-way coalition with the Free Democrats and the traditionally left-leaning Greens.

The gamble paid off. Hermann Groehe, the Christian Democrats' general secretary, said the result was "a great signal for the upcoming state elections" in May in Schleswig-Holstein and in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state.

The Free Democrats started the year as they finished 2011, when they were kicked out of five state parliaments. Their national support has slumped.

The party has been battered by its failure to win tax cuts it promised before Germany's 2009 elections, and by perceptions that it is drifting and deserves much of the blame for frequent squabbling in Merkel's coalition.

In addition, Kramp-Karrenbauer blamed her decision to end Saarland's previous government on infighting in the Free Democrats' local branch.

"We are looking at a special regional political situation," party general secretary Patrick Doering said, insisting that the Free Democrats have a "hope of achieving good results" in the higher-stakes votes in May.

Wipeouts in both elections would raise serious questions about the future of Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, elected party leader only last May, threatening more upheaval in the government.

Kramp-Karrenbauer looks assured of remaining Saarland governor because the Social Democrats said they wouldn't form a coalition with the hard-left Left Party, which slipped to 16.1 percent of the vote.

Saarland is economically weak and the two biggest parties plan to form a "grand coalition" to tackle its financial problems. Social Democrat candidate Heiko Maas said last week the Left Party "fails to see financial reality" and has policies that would lead to "Greek conditions."

The Christian Democrats' Groehe said Sunday's election "showed that the course of solid budgets pays off."

The party will hope that approach helps it overturn a poll deficit in May against North Rhine-Westphalia's center-left government, which opponents accuse of spendthrift financial management.

The Pirate Party entered its second state legislature, after Berlin last year, winning 7.4 percent support. That underlined the growing threat it poses to its competitors with a platform based on near-total transparency and Internet freedom.

"We picked up non-voters, and it makes us extremely happy if we are bringing people into the political process," Pirate Michael Hilberer told ZDF television. "To understand our success, you have to understand that we offer politics as an open platform."

The Greens won 5 percent, just enough to stay in Saarland's parliament.

In a lower-profile election Sunday, the Social Democrats wrested the mayor's office in Frankfurt, Germany's financial capital, from Merkel's party. Christian Democrat Petra Roth, who is retiring, ran the city for 17 years.

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