German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party suffered an electoral setback in her home state Sunday, two years before a national vote and amid mounting criticism over her handling of the eurozone crisis.
Key opposition parties took votes from her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) in the poll, the latest in a string of poor election results in 2011, dubbed a "super election year."
According to exit polls released by TV channel ARD, the CDU won 23.3 percent in elections in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, an embarrassing decline on the 28.8 percent they won in 2006.
As expected, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the strongest party, with 36.6 percent of the vote, a significant gain on their 2006 performance of 30.2 percent.
The third-strongest party was the far-left Linke, with 18.0 percent.
The resurgent Greens scored 8.0 percent, according to the exit poll, ensuring their representation in the regional parliament for the first time. They had previously failed to clear the five-percent hurdle required to enter the parliament.
The far-right NPD, which has historically done well in the state that has an unemployment rate nearly twice as high as the national average, also lost support but looked likely to scrape back into parliament with 5.9 percent.
Merkel's coalition partners at the national level, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), suffered a sharp rebuke with a paltry three percent of the vote, a result mass circulation Bild slammed as a "debacle."
The FDP's general secretary Christian Lindner said the result left "a very bitter taste."
Negotiations will now take place over possible coalition arrangements. Many analysts expect a continuation of the "grand coalition" of CDU and SPD that has governed the state since 2006.
However, a coalition of the SPD and the Linke, or even a three-way tie-up with the newly elected Greens, is also possible.
The SPD has not yet nominated its preferred coalition partner.
Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's current leader, Erwin Sellering from the SPD, was tight-lipped after the results, telling reporters only: "We will decide what is best for the region."
The result is yet another political setback for Merkel, who has endured a torrid 2011.
Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania was the sixth of seven regional elections this year, a so-called "super election" year. The final vote takes place in the city state of Berlin on September 18.
Polls show the SPD will retain power there comfortably.
Most humiliating for the CDU was a defeat in March to the Greens in the wealthy southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg that the conservatives had ruled without interruption for nearly six decades.
Voters have reacted with anger over Merkel's handling of the euro crisis, which became a major theme in the campaign. Squabbling within the coalition has also driven voters into the arms of the SPD and the Greens.
The result is also likely to increase the pressure on unpopular Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, a former head of the FDP whom many blame for the party's loss of support.
Final results in the state will not be available for another two weeks, following the death of the CDU candidate in one electoral district, forcing the postponement of the ballot.
The result in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania will have no effect on the make-up of the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, where Germany's 16 states are represented.
The ruling coalition lost its majority there in 2010.
Germany is expected to hold federal elections in 2013. Current polls put a coalition of the SPD and the Greens comfortably ahead of the CDU and FDP, due to the spectacular loss of popularity endured by the FDP.
Source: AFP Global Edition