By Carsten Hauptmeier and Frank Zeller, AFP

SAARBRUCKEN, Germany — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party easily won a regional election Sunday, dealing an early blow to center-left hopes of ending her more than decadelong reign. In the Saarland state vote held six months before a general election, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) won 40 percent against 30 percent for the Social Democrats (SPD), according to early results by public broadcasters. The result spelt a five-point boost for the CDU over the SPD, which has served as the unhappy junior partner to the conservatives in so-called grand coalitions at both the state and national levels. The vote in the tiny state on the French border, which has a population of only one million, was seen as a bellwether ahead of the Sept. 24 general election in which Merkel, the veteran leader often dubbed “the Queen of Europe,” will seek a fourth term.

The SPD have made strong gains in national opinion surveys since Martin Schulz, the folksy and plain-spoken former president of the European Parliament, took over in January. The “Schulz effect” has seen especially younger voters flock to the more than 150-year-old workers’ party, which is now polling neck-and-neck at the national level with Merkel’s conservative bloc. But the new euphoria did not translate into the strong results the SPD had hoped for in Saarland, a former coal mining region, which held the first of three German state polls scheduled in the run-up to the national election. Schulz conceded it was “not a nice evening” and that “the CDU clearly won” but insisted that “our goal is a change of federal government” this year, calling the campaign until then “a marathon, not a sprint.” ‘Path of success’ The CDU’s popular State Premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was cheered by jubilant supporters, admitted she was “floored” by the strong result, about five points up from the last election amid strong turnout of around 70 percent. Merkel’s right-hand man Peter Altmaier, the chancellery chief of staff who hails from Saarland, said “it’s an outcome that gives us courage.” The result suggested many voters in Saarland were frightened by talk of a “red-red” coalition between the SPD and the far-left Linke party, which scored about 13 percent.