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Merkel's conservatives win state vote as Germany enters election year

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel center turns her head as she listens to the opening address during an EU summit meeting at the Orazi and Curiazi Hall in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome on Saturday

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right party cruised to victory Sunday in a regional election that analysts say was an early test of whether she will face any serious challenge when she pursues a fourth term as Europe's most dominant political leader in September.

The Christian Democrats (CDU) won 40.7% of the vote to the Social Democrats' (SPD) 29.6% in the small south-western state of Saarland, first official results showed.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, State Minister-President and top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union Party reacts after the Saarland state elections in Saarbruecken, Germany, March 26, 2017. The CDU has governed the state for 18 years.

The regional elections in Saarland are a barometer for the so-called "Schulz effect", after he was elected to head the SPD a week ago with 100 per cent of the votes of his party colleagues.

On the long road to the September 24 federal election, Saarland was a stage victory for the Christian Democrats.

"We have picked up support in the last few weeks, in Saarland too, and we are looking ahead", he said, promising to draw "the necessary consequences" for the two next two state elections in May.

The nationalist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 6.2 percent of the vote. Sunday's results in Saarland were certainly disappointing for the SPD, but the elections were admittedly very, very close.

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Saarland has only 800,000 eligible voters, but the election there was the first of three regional votes ahead of the September 24 federal vote and as such offered an opportunity for the parties to build - or lose - momentum in their quest to prevail at the national level. In the event, the Greens did not meet the 5 percent threshold to enter the state assembly.

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They showed the Social Democrats receiving up to 30% of the vote.

Angela Merkel and Donald Trump met each other personally last week, the German chancellor's visit was not the ideal one, moreover, political observers called it the worst one in the history of the countries' relations.

He said: "We have tail wind, but we haven't won anything yet".

The former president of the European parliament has increased support for the party by 10 points with promises to help socially disadvantaged people and end Merkel's near 12 years as chancellor. "Elections are endurance races and not sprints".

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is one of only five conservative governors in Germany's 16 states.

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